July 1, 2016

Is 20schemes Patronising People by Calling them 'Poor'?

We have now been church planting full time for just under a year. It has been equally energising and draining. Full of exhilarating highs and desperate lows. We have been encouraged by much needed support, yet we have been stung by sharp opposition.

The number one comment we have received, however, is perhaps not what we (or you) may expect. It hasn’t been ‘don’t call me a sinner’ but it keeps cropping up from different places every couple of months. That is, ‘don’t call me poor’.

It’s come in many guises, but the key message is that using words like ‘deprived’, ‘disadvantaged’ or (and especially) ‘Scotland’s poorest’ is not a fair reflection of our scheme.

Perhaps some think we see the people of Scotland’s schemes as down-and-out, destitute, run down, nobodies. People who need us to come in on our white horses to ‘rescue’ them. Perhaps they read some of the stats we have quoted and think that we class all in our schemes as unemployed, benefit stealing, alcoholic drug users. Perhaps they even see us as posh, middle-class people with acute saviour-complexes trying to get involved in a community that we just don’t understand or with people who are nothing like we think they are.

Now it could be easy to say that we shouldn’t worry about this. And ultimately, of course, we shouldn’t. God knows what he has called us to do, and God knows our hearts and motivations for what we’re doing. And yet this is a perception we are concerned about. Indeed, it’s the last thing we want to be seen to be doing, because it isn’t what we are about at all.

So how do we respond?

We could, I guess, point to the fact that:

  • It’s not 20schemes who label our areas deprived, but the Scottish Government.
  • The schemes we are currently in, from last SIMD data, have at times double the national average income deprivation and triple the national average employment deprivation.
  • Other agencies and religious bodies use similar language and steer funding to them for this very reason.
  • The parks, public spaces, and buildings of our communities are shamefully kept compared to other, more stereotypically ‘affluent’ areas.
  • Our key strategy is to raise up local indigenous people from the schemes to lead the churches we plant in them, specifically because we think they are able and the best people for the job.

But these are not the key messages we want to respond with either. For these, too, are not the point.

The point is, I get it. I get why people are annoyed when they think we are talking down to them as if we are better. I get why some of this language is unhelpful. I get that our schemes are full of hard-working, good, and loving people who are as much a key part of society as the people of anywhere else. Indeed, I am embarrassed if I have made it seem like I am some sort of saviour, riding in on my white horse, coming to save the day. I get that the schemes don’t need that. I get that the schemes don’t need me.

In fact, I fight this same battle in my own context. I fight it against those who ask why I would want to move into a scheme instead of a wealthy city suburb. I fight it against those who think I should send my kids to a secular private school instead of embedding them in the local primary. I fight it against churches who want to drive into our communities with their foodbanks, handouts, and charity, and then drive out to their own utopia of studio apartment flats and highbrow wine bars. I fight it against those who are desperate to move out of the scheme in order to ‘better themselves’ and move up the social ladder.

Stats don’t tell the whole story. And we would be fools to pretend that they do.

I have had the privilege of getting to know this little scheme we now call home for the past seven years. And the heart of our scheme is found in the heart of the people of it. The proud yet down-to-earth, those with hardened exteriors but soft warm interiors, those full of humour and yet honest and genuine with their struggles. People make our scheme. Behind the statistics, there are 1000s of great, hard-working people who are glad to call here home. And I am one of them. There is truly nowhere else I would rather be. Nowhere else I want my boys to go to school. Nowhere else I want to call home. This community has welcomed my family from the start, and now the most significant relationships in my life work themselves out within the boundaries of our scheme.

More than that, we have some of the (statistically) best schools in the whole of Scotland here. We have some of the most effective community workers and housing associations working here. We have some of the best local politicians living and working in our schemes. We have the type of community relationships/spirit here that middle-class Christians dream of. The schemes are a GREAT place to be.

So please don’t hear what we are about as ‘20schemes’ and get the wrong impression. We are not here begrudgingly. We are not here with a saviour complex. We KNOW how blessed we are that the Lord would call us to work in these communities.

BUT we will not stop talking about the problems found within our boundaries. You see, although the majority within our communities are not struggling toward financial meltdown, there are those that are, and they need to know hope. Although the vast majority would NEVER go near a drug, there are those who are caught in bondage to them and they need to know hope. Although we could point to solid family after solid family, we could also point to those at breaking point, and they need to know hope. Although most are perfectly content and satisfied with their lives, there are those whose whole world is crashing in around them, and they need to know hope. Although the bulk of our people are upstanding citizens never in trouble with the law, there are those who feel battered by the judicial system, and they need to know hope.

I will not let our group write off those at the margins of our community and count them as less than the true community. I will not let our church only deal with the 99 sheep who are happily grazing in our fields and forget about the one who is clearly lost. Because here is the deal: We’re all lost. We’re all messy. It doesn’t matter where you are from or where you live. Some of us are just better at hiding it than others. Some of us just have more money to cover it up than others.

Jesus, during his years of earthly ministry, regularly hung out with those at the margins of society, with tax collectors and sinners. And the gospels don’t paint them as the few nobodies who need help. They paint them as the few somebodies who realise they need a saviour. You see, the biggest problem that all our schemes face is that the vast majority of people within them are not in a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. And even if there were no other issues, this single issue is reason enough to plant gospel churches in Scotland’s housing schemes. And yes, the majority of other (so called) middle-class areas are in the same state, and yes they need gospel churches there too, for the good news of Jesus Christ is not just for a select few in a certain class of society, it is for everyone.

And the good news bears fruit amongst anybody, whether rich or poor, middle or working class, retired or on benefits, anybody who realises that they can’t find forgiveness, joy, or peace in this life by themselves, and for that for that they need a saviour.

But here is MY problem with evangelical Christianity and how we engage with communities like ours. My problem is, although this is the clear and obvious need, we don’t plant churches here. We plant churches in our rich, inner-city hubs of culture or our ‘rich’ city suburbs where all have 2.5 children and a nice shiny BMW outside next to immaculately kept gardens. Last year, research from Harper church found that you can find one ‘evangelical’ church for 2,500 people in parts of Glasgow’s West End, but only one ‘evangelical’ church for 30,000 people in parts of the East. That is shameful. That is patronising.

My problem is that we, as evangelical Christians, are so quick to drive in with our parcels of food or tips for employment. We are so keen to come in once a year on a mission trip or once a week to run a kids’ club. But will NOT move in and live day-in, day-out to shine the light of the gospel into the lives of people who do not know Jesus. That is shameful. That is patronising.

Our schemes don’t ultimately need our handouts. They don’t really need our charity. They, like every other area of our city, need to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ and be saved. The people of Scotland’s schemes do not need to be told they are poor and in need of changing. They need to be told they are sinners and in need of saving, like the rest of the millions of people in our country.

The most worrying stat for me is that we reckon there are no more than 1% of most scheme communities who would class themselves as conservative evangelical (‘gospel’) Christians. And so, for those of us who are convinced of and driven by the gospel, then we should be driven to action. We should live to ‘make Jesus known’ in Scotland’s schemes. We should come not as elevated saviours on white horses but as poor, wretched sinners on our knees, pointing to the one true Saviour of all people. That is the answer to true poverty, the spiritual poverty of not knowing Jesus. That is what we, as 20schemes, mean by ‘Scotland’s poorest’. And that is the poverty we are most concerned about as we seek to plant and revitalise gospel churches in our communities.

There is no point in us provoking unnecessary attacks due to people’s perception of how rich or poor we think they are. But we will not budge from our aim to tackle this true spiritual poverty that we find is all too common in our communities. For that, people may ridicule us. For that, people may persecute us. But for that, we will give our lives because we know that true love, joy, and hope for ALL people is found in the crucified Saviour who humbled and gave himself for poor sinners like you and me. The people of Scotland’s schemes need to know that. Without Jesus they, and we, are desperately poor. With Jesus, we are all extravagantly rich.

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