October 6, 2017

Lessons the UK Church Needs to Learn to Reach Schemes and Council Estates

Did you know that less than one-third of 18-year-olds went to university in 2016? Even if we include those who took a gap year, that means that about 60% didn’t go to University. Yet, UK evangelicals have a disproportionate number of churches in student areas and planted to reach students. What if two-thirds of our churches were planted to reach the other two-thirds of 18 year olds? What would the evangelical landscape look like then? What if we invested as much in reaching the 18-year-old in work as we do the student at university? Even within cities like Leeds and Sheffield, the student populations make up less than 15% of the population. What are we doing, as evangelical churches and Christians, to reach the other 85%? [1]

45% of the population of the UK is working class [2]. Yet how many of our UK evangelical churches reflect that? How many of the leaders reflect that? What about our outreach and our church planting? How often are we doing it in working class and/or deprived communities? Yet so much of Yorkshire, and the UK, is like that.

It is clear that there is a spiritual deficit in some of the neediest council estates and schemes of our land. I see it in the valleys in Wales, in the paramilitary (of all stripes) housing estates in Northern Ireland. The problem is huge in the council estates of the UK, where the North of England is practically a spiritual wasteland. In Scotland we can drive past scheme after scheme with little or no established gospel churches.

Something needs to change. Denominations need to review their church planting and revitalisation strategies. The UK church needs to wake from its (largely) middle class slumber. Its institutions are middle class. Its publishing houses cater to the middle class. Huge amounts of funds are poured into middle class planting ventures and para-church organisations. Everywhere I travel leaders are telling me: “You keep stating the problem, but what can we do about it?”

Well, here are at least six things to think about.

Think Neighbourhood, Not Network

A network church draws members from all over the town or city, and even beyond it. Many middle-class people will happily drive 20–30 minutes for a good church. They don’t necessarily feel a loyalty to the area in which they live, even if they pass a number of good churches on the way to their own. They value the teaching, the childcare, the facilitates, and the relationships with likeminded (read: middle class) people who share their moral values as well as their faith in Jesus.

Working-class culture is very different. People are loyal to their neighbourhood. Unlike middle-class people, who tend to geographically move around, working-class people tend to be static. Middle-class people will move for job reasons (promotion, etc.) or to upgrade the house, whereas working-class people tend to stay in the same job (and even if promoted it doesn’t require moving out of the area) and the same home. They can’t afford to upgrade even if they wanted to. And anyway, despite the middle class disdain of council estates/schemes, they love their communities because its where ‘family’ are. Many people in Niddrie have family in the scheme going back to its inception almost 200 years ago. That is a tight bond. Thy value loyalty to their scheme or estate over anything else. Therefore, they are highly unlikely to attend a church that is outside their geographical locale. If there is not a church within walking distance, they will not have opportunity to hear the gospel. This is particularly true for working class and deprived areas.

Many UK churches can fool themselves into thinking that they are a ‘community church’ because they maybe straddle a few estates. Yet, how many of our worshippers drive in? How many of our ‘small/life/whatever groups’ are relocated within a few hundred yards or even a couple of miles of the building in which you worship? We mustn’t fool ourselves that we’re a neighbourhood church because of where our building is located. Is our church postcode an historical quirk of geography or does it represent our mission field? If all locals see of the church is the whites of our headlights when we arrive and the red glow of our brakes lights as we leave, we’re not a local church. Because, as a general rule, if people don’t live in an area then they’ll opt out of local mission.

There are huge areas of the UK we won’t reach by planting network churches. We need to think neighbourhood, even though these churches will tend to be smaller and may need long term partnership in terms of resources and support form their richer, middle class counterparts.

To be clear, this is not an argument against network churches. This is an argument for more neighbourhood churches. Network churches with larger resources can be an immense source of financial and prayerful help to small, neighbourhood churches, especially in the early years.

If you’re a city-centre church or a network church, here’s something you can do.

Think about funding a work in a council estate or a housing scheme. Think about sending (or supporting if there are already believers there) a small group of people to live in a neighbourhood and begin the slow process of growing a truly local church.


[1] Data from Sheffield and Leeds universities about the number of students on role and generally available population trends.
[2] https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2016/feb/26/uk-more-middle-class-than-working-class-2000-data and correlates to those in C2DE occupations.

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