This article was written by David Binder.
According to Pew Research (USA) and the Office for National Statistics (ONS), Christianity in the 21st century is declining. Whilst, broadly speaking, fewer seem willing to identify themselves as Christiansas in the past, leading commentators such as Ed Stetzer have argued that Evangelical Christian numbers are stable, or even increasing. Stetzer therefore concludes that Christianity is not declining, more being redefined.
Yet, to date, many have argued that the Evangelical Church in the UK has been largely dominated by the middle class, and that more should be done to reach those in poorer, working-class areas. This, they argue, should not be done merely for its own sake, but in accordance with Christ’s Great Commission.
One example of working class gospel ministry already taking place is through the charity SixtyEightFive, founded by married father of two Ian Williamson. Working in some of the most deprived wards in the country, this ministry seeks to evangelise and disciple men and women in the North East England town of Middlesbrough who have been raised in a fatherless environment.
I caught up with Ian to chat more about his own testimony, the work of the charity, and how it is reaching the working class for the gospel.
- Hi Ian, thanks for being willing to chat with me about the work of Psalm 65:8. Let’s start by hearing more about your personal connection with the issues the ministry seeks to engage with.
I was raised in Middlesbrough by my mum, who was a lone parent. I longed to have my dad around, and as such I suffered from fear and anger. I found it difficult to understand what it means to be a man. I didn’t have anybody to tell me about cars, football, how to fix a puncture, or to shave, for example.
My mum became a Christian when I was 14, and the family went to church with her. Most of the congregation was middle class and living a ‘2.4 children’ type of lifestyle, whilst the mums on the council estates tended to be single parents.
The youth group at the church had an invisible but very noticeable divide between the estate kids and the church kids. I think this divide came about as a mixture of geography (the church kids lived a few miles off the estate), ignorance (the church was not equipped for working with marriage break-ups and lone parents), and the ‘council estate chip on the shoulder’ of us council estate kids.
The church didn’t know how to handle me and the other boys of the estate. As a result, I always felt like an outsider. I soon became dissatisfied and started knocking around with friends from school rather than the kids from the church.
Before I left the church at 16, I spent some time with a young man living on the estate who was also raised in a fatherless environment and who was training at Bible College. He shared Psalm 68 verse 5 with me and told me that even though we were fatherless, we could know God as our Father. Although this didn’t mean much to me at the time, the verse stayed with me for many years.
Fast forward a few years; I was 28 and working as a bouncer. I was in debt, addicted to drugs, and contemplating suicide. My mum told me Jesus could help me, and over a few weeks I started to read my bible, pray, and meet with Christians before crying out to God for forgiveness.
- It’s great to hear your story and how God sovereignly worked in your life to bring you to salvation. What ultimately persuaded you to get involved in full time ministry with Sixtyeightfive and its ‘affiliated church’ New Life Church, Middlesborough?
I was training with the Yorkshire School of Christian Ministry and I had applied for a pastoral position in a rural church. However, my tutor Martin Woodier told me that I would be wasted in a rural setting, and he asked me to look at a church in a tough part of Leeds. As I was investigating this possibility, I began to see the similarities between this part of Leeds and Middlesbrough. So I thought: Why go to an area I don’t know and start from scratch in building relationships when I already have those relationships in my home town?
I contacted several churches in the town who were without a pastor and shared my vision for working with the fatherless and reaching out to estates without churches. I offered to do a voluntary internship, but none of the churches were interested. I then spoke to a friend who was Director of Mission for a missionary organisation, and he suggested that I started my own ministry. Shortly after, SixtyEightFive was born.
I soon started taking referrals from the police, schools, and social services. Eventually, the work moved from just serving men and boys to also working with mums and girls. We then started seeing people get saved, but struggled to find a local church to send people to. I approached Acts 29 and the FIEC about three years ago about the possibility of them sending a team to plant in Middlesbrough. However, I was told that they would struggle to find people willing to move to a town like Middlesbrough and that maybe I should be the one to establish a church.
I then contacted Duncan Forbes, Lead Pastor of New Life Church, Roehampton and partnered with him and his church to plant New Life Church, Middlesbrough. Duncan provided me with training and mentoring through the Urban Ministry Program (ran in partnership with Oak Hill) and provided the church with resources.
We started off with a small team of new converts, all from unchurched backgrounds, with the majority having previous issues with addiction and raised in fatherless environments. We are now affiliated with the FIEC, and have grown from our living room to renting a church hall. Three of the new converts are also now training as interns, and SixtyEightFive is a ministry of the church.
Further, we have recently partnered with Niddrie community church and are being supported and resourced by Niddrie’s lead pastor Mez McConnell and his team from 20schemes.
FRONT LINE GOSPEL MINISTRY
- Moving onto the present situation, can you talk me through a typical day’s ministry with Sixtyeightfive? What sort of activities do you get up to?
A typical day could include sparring with a couple of blokes at a kickboxing and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu gym. I’ll often go and get beat up, and as someone is strangling me, I tell them about Jesus! I was training for over a year; I’d tell the lads that I was a chaplain and was praying for them, and that if they needed anything, to just ask. After about 18 months, I gained the trust of this man and he shared about his addiction to prescription drugs. I prayed with him and gave him a Bible. I don’t see him so much since he started work, but we still meet occasionally, and I’m praying that he’ll come to faith.
We also get involved with a luncheon club where we take school kids at risk of exclusion to prepare and serve meals to local pensioners. It’s amazing how some of the tough lads chill out when they’re getting shown how to ice cakes by a little old lady!
We also find a lot of the men enjoy walking across the North Yorkshire Moors for a couple of hours. This gives the men a chance to relax and take in the scenery, and provides lots of gospel opportunities.
More recently, we have developed our work with women and girls. We’ve had some great success with two girls who are going to be doing an internship with the church and SixtyEightFive from September this year. The women also have Craft nights, are involved in the luncheon club, and have recently started rearing chickens and growing vegetables on a local allotment.
Everything we do is aimed at providing positive activities for people to do so that we can spend time building relationships with people and share the gospel. This is a long-term type of evangelism, and it may take a year or two before we see any fruit (if at all). But our job is to preach the gospel, and it’s up to God to do the rest.
- Moving on to the present situation with Psalm 65:8, what are some of the blessings and challenges you’ve encountered so far?
One of the realities of this type ministry is that you will experience lots of disappointment. I have worked with people who seemed to be doing really well spiritually and appear to have beaten addiction, only for them to relapse and end up dead through overdoses. There have been people who have come out of prison, started work, and settled down, but then after a couple of years end up back in prison.
I used to put pressure on myself due to a lack of trust in the sovereignty of God. I remember not wanting to go away on conferences because I was worried how a new convert would fair whilst I was away. The realisation that God does the choosing, converting, and sanctifying has freed me from a lot of stress.
There are also plenty of blessings. One in particular was when I was working with a young man called John (not his real name) who was struggling with drugs. He ended up going to prison, and I would visit him and then visit his dad afterwards to pass on how he was doing. After a couple of months of meeting with John’s dad, I asked if I could pray with him. Soon after that, he became a Christian, and is still professing faith a year after his release. His wife was also converted shortly after, and has recently been baptised.
- I’m sure you’re aware of the whole social action/gospel proclamation debate. What’s your view on this and how does this feed into the work of Psalm 65:8?
SixtyEightFive has the primary aim of preaching the gospel and making disciples. Yet, as a natural outworking of our faith, we try to glorify God by showing mercy and compassion to those less fortunate than ourselves. We see in Luke 6 that Jesus tells us that God shows mercy and compassion to the ungrateful, and we as his children should do the same.
Some Christians join chess clubs, gyms, and use the school gates as ways of creating opportunities to share the gospel, and likewise SixtyEightFive sees opportunities to share the gospel and make disciples through genuinely serving the practical needs in the town of Middlesbrough. In serving the local community in this way, we are able to build trust and friendships. In doing so, we share our faith and make disciples.
In short, our primary aim is to proclaim the gospel and disciple. In line with this ultimate aim, we also seek to genuinely (no strings attached!) help alleviate the multiple needs of the community around us.
- Can you say a little bit more about how the relationship between New Life Church, Middlesbrough and SixtyEightFive?
New Life Church came about partly through the relationships that we had built through SixtyEightFive, and now SixtyEightFive has become a ministry of the church (see answer to question 2). The only reason SixtyEightFive existed was because there weren’t enough churches in the area, and our aims and objectives were that of providing the spiritual and practical support to people who weren’t being reached by a local church.
Now, instead of only having myself working for the charity, we have the whole church reaching out to the community and supporting the fatherless and lonely.
- Are you partnering with any other working-class gospel ministries at present?
After attending a ‘Reaching the Unreached’ conference, I built some good links with other council estate churches in Brighton, London, and Edinburgh. We are now linked with Mez McConnell, Pastor of Niddrie Community Church and founder of 20schemes. Niddrie Community Church has a great staff team and has helped us by providing respite and training for some of our members.
WIDER GOSPEL CHALLENGES
7. For those (like me) who’ve never been to Middlesbrough, what’s it like as a place?
Middlesbrough is a town that has never reached its full potential; founded on the back of the iron and steel industry, it has been severely crippled by every government for the last 40 years. Privatisation and the closure of the docks and chemical and steel plants have led to mass unemployment and the associated problems that come with that.
As such, lone parent families, poverty, and drug and alcohol abuse is rife, whilst low life expectancy is amongst the worst in the country. Three of the top 10 deprived wards in the country are in Middlesbrough. Yet even with all the negativity, there is a strong sense of community and a brilliant, if not dark, sense of humour!
On the plus side, Middlesbrough is a five-minute drive from both the North Yorkshire Coast and the North Yorkshire Moors, and there are new housing and business developments happening around the disused shipyards.
- Is there much of a gospel, bible teaching presence in the town?
The town centre has several big churches, where the majority of its members drive into from outside, but there is a real lack of churches on the housing estates. Many of the churches that are on the estates are without a minister or have a minister that oversees a number of churches. This means that evangelism and a sustained local Christian presence is limited.
As far as traditional reformed evangelical churches are concerned, there isn’t much happening in the town. What presence there is often lacks the ministry that can engage and reach the ‘typical working-class northerner.’ Friendship, identity, and loyalty is a big thing in the town, so building relationships and doing things in a way that doesn’t seem alien is key to teaching the bible, but unfortunately many churches in the town have not grasped that.
- Why do you think there’s such little gospel witness in Middlesbrough, and perhaps in working-class areas in general?
Ministry in Middlesbrough is tough. I know that all ministry is tough, but you can retain your creature comforts in a lot of middle-class churches. Often, for instance, you can find a church that is close to a good university, music venue, restaurant, and theatre. You’d be hard pushed to find such amenities in Middlesbrough. You can also get away with less discipleship time in middle-class churches as I find people aren't as open with their struggles. If you ask someone how they are doing in a middle-class church, you’re usually greeted with a ‘fine thanks’, but in a working-class church you will probably be greeted with brutal honesty from how a pensioner is struggling with their piles to how little Tommy has been caught smoking to how someone has pawned their wives jewellery for some drugs.
Working-class ministry, if done well, is 24/7 because the needs can’t be met on a Sunday only. It is intense—you are often working with people who are hurting, struggling with, and surrounded by temptation, addictions, and criminal behaviour.
THE FUTURE OUTLOOK
- I appreciate this is a big question that probably deserves a whole book, but what are some of the things that the wider church can be doing to better reach Middlesbrough and other working-class areas?
New Life Church Middlesbrough, and other working-class churches, would benefit massively by Christians who are willing to come here and join a church like ours, who are willing to become members and serve the church and the town.
Middle-class people who have a heart for working-class ministry could do well by joining a church like ours to serve us, whilst learning and training how to contextualise the gospel. The hope would be that they would stay longer-term and be part of the team or even take what they have learned and apply it in another working-class area.
Finance is also a massive issue; our church can’t afford to pay me as a pastor or the rest of the annual running costs. Niddrie community are supporting us financially, whilst I have to raise the rest through financial support and grants. Therefore, it would be a great help if other wealthier churches could partner with us financially and/or by sending self-funded interns.
- How about individual Christians? Is there anything we can be doing ourselves to better reach working class areas?
If I wanted to reach out to the Spanish, I would learn all I could about the Spanish by joining a Spanish church, and I think that the same applies for the middle class wanting to reach out to the working class. In other words, join a church like ours, bring your gifts, and bless us whilst we bless you and show you the ropes, the culture, and our way of life.
- What does the future hold for Psalm 68:5, New Life Church, and working class gospel ministry?
I can’t see the situation with family breakdown and poverty improving anytime soon, so I think the need for our type of ministry will exist for a many years to come. My hope for 68:5 is that we can help train and resource other churches in working-class areas to reach their communities with the gospel.
We are hoping that New Life will continue to grow and develop a team of people dedicated to reaching out to the lost in Middlesbrough. We also hope that pastors, preachers, and female gospel workers will be trained and discipled with the aim of continuing the work.
- How can we be praying for you and your family?
Please pray that we continue be generous with our time and energy without missing out on time with each other. Please also pray that God sends more workers.
Are you interested in working among the urban unreached in the UK? Do you have a desire to bring the gospel of Jesus into the council estates of the UK? Are you interested in church planting? The we have an exciting opportunity for you.
New Life Church, Middlesbrough is a church plant in East Middlesbrough and is committed to taking the gospel and providing 24/7 discipleship to the housing estates of the area.
To help us move forward in our mission, we are looking to recruit a male intern who is interested in training for urban ministry in one of the most economically and spiritually deprived areas of the UK.
The post is to start in September 2015 and would involve theological and practical training, specifically designed for the urban context. The post is full time and will involve:
- Preaching (or training to preach) at least one Sunday per month.
- Leading the Sunday service twice a month.
- Running a weekly Bible study for men.
- Assisting the pastor.
- General Christian service.
This is a really exciting opportunity for the right person to get in on the ground floor of a church plant on a council estate. Ideally, we are looking for somebody to raise their own financial support but there will be a grant available to the right candidate.
The closing date for applicants is: June 30th 2015.
For more information and to arrange a visit contact Ian Williamson: [email protected]