March 9, 2020

‘My Ministry is Harder than Yours’ and Other Lies We Tell

My dad has been a bricklayer for over 40 years. Snow, rain, or shine, he leaves at the crack of dawn, puts in a full shift ‘on the trowel’ and gets back for tea. A lifetime of this has left him with cracked hands and in need of a replacement ball for his shoulder joint. It’s a hard life.

In Brazil, we worked with children as young as five-years-old who sold chewing gum to make ends meet. When that failed (which it did), kids were pushed into prostitution by unscrupulous adults. It was a horrendous life, and still is for untold millions.

Nothing Special

As I’ve spent time on the road over the years—promoting the work and ministry of 20schemes—I’ve observed a disturbing trend. On these trips, I speak to church planters, pastors, leaders, and lay people. The trend is simply this: the misconception that somehow what we are doing here in the schemes of Scotland is particularly brave or difficult, requiring some sort of super-human faith and character. Like it is actually ‘hard graft’.

There seems to be some sort of (urban?) myth that working with the poor is especially ‘hard’. As if somehow in the pantheon of Christian ministry, ours stands alone as the really difficult one. That somehow, our kind of ministry needs your prayers more than other kinds. That our workers are ‘hardier’ than any others. That to live and work in a poor area is a greater sacrifice than to live and work in a more upmarket area. I don’t know if it’s because of how we communicate the needs. I don’t know if it’s because of the stories we sometimes tell of individuals saved out of frightening circumstances.

I can remember some of my travels in particular when person after person—especially pastors—would pat me on the back and say something like, “Well done mate. I couldn’t do what you do.” Don’t get me wrong—I appreciate the sentiment, and it’s nice to get a pat on the back once in a while. But here’s my dilemma. It’s not really all that hard. Embarrassingly, it is very easy to live and work in a housing scheme. In fact, it’s a bit of a doddle. So, I feel like I need to officially come out as a pastoral fraud. As I say to my friends in non-scheme areas: “Well done to you mate. In many ways, yours is actually the harder ministry.”

Hard is Relative and Subjective

When I listen to men battling away around Europe (and in the States) in well-off areas, it makes me break out in a cold sweat. How the heck do you evangelise in an area where everybody has a decent paid job, a nice place to live, and possibly a car (or two or three) in the drive? How do you break through the intellectual pride of a worldview that thinks religion is beneath them and that science has all the answers? How do you witness in an area where the average house price is over £250k? How do you talk to a guy who feels no need for Christ because he is distracted by his materialism? How do you make it work in an area filled with nice, law-abiding citizens, who don’t cheat on their wives, beat their kids, and spend their days stoned on the sofa watching reality TV? Now that’s hard. That’s more than hard. That, my friends, is brutal.

So, the next time you’re tempted to think of 20schemes as being a ‘hard’ ministry, please don’t. Don’t get me wrong; there are difficulties, but nothing as hard as many of my brothers face in the more (so-called) ‘well-to-do’ areas in the UK and Europe—in cities and countries where less than 2% are Christian.

20schemes is a ministry of necessity, not danger. It is a ministry to get the gospel back into schemes that have been left behind by a culturally middle-class Christianity. We’re not after churches marketed solely for the poor. We’re after churches that love the gospel and reflect life within these needy areas. We want to see the city worker and the addict saved, discipled, and serving together in the life and ministry of the local church. We want the guy from the schemes to have the same opportunities to become a leader as his educated neighbour.

On a scheme, I can have a conversation about Jesus any day of the week. I can call a man a sinner and he will probably agree without it denting his pride (too much). I rarely meet atheists in schemes. People here tend to have more time to stop and chat. They have more of a sense of community. They will come to an event knowing you will preach at them and they won’t blink. Of course, there are many who don’t. But my point is that we operate within a culture that is incredibly open to the gospel. Any hostility here is to the church as an institution because it is seen as a ‘posh person’s club’. The hardest part comes in discipleship and discipline. So, in effect, we have it easier going in the front door than many of our middle-class counterparts. It’s just keeping the house tidy once we’re in that’s the problem.

What’s so ‘hard’ about living for Jesus in a culture where everybody knows everybody and where you see your neighbour every day of the week? What’s ‘hard’ about sitting in a community cafe for a buttie and a chat at a moment’s notice? What’s ‘hard’ about popping in to your pal’s house for a brew any time you’re passing by (yes, really—without an appointment!)? What’s ‘hard’ about not needing to have ‘house/life/small groups’ because we see each other so much anyway and it just happens naturally? Nothing my friends. Nothing at all.

‘Hard’ is trying to build authentic community among a scattered congregation. ‘Hard’ is trying to foster meaningful relationships in a diarised culture. ‘Hard’ is trying to engage in spiritual conversations with disinterested individuals. ‘Hard’ is not having the freedom to pop into your friend’s house uninvited because it might not be polite.

Stop Comparing

So, please, let’s not compare our ministries on who has it toughest. I promise not to if you don’t. Let’s just get behind one another in concerted prayer and support. Let’s get rid of this spiritual one-upmanship and face the facts that it’s all a privilege anyway. We serve the King of the Universe. Just let that sink in. We get to do what we love and get a sweet reward at the end of it. Much better than arthritic fingers and a worn away ball joint from a lifetime of laying bricks.

Let’s remind ourselves often of Paul’s words to the church in Colossians 3:

“Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.”

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