February 20, 2014

Moving Past Paternalism in Working With the Poor

What enters our minds (as local church leaders and/or gospel workers) when we think of inner-city housing schemes, council estates, and/or projects (or other socially deprived areas we know of)? What do you think that the residents need in order to alleviate the problems they face? It is easy to try to appease a guilty conscience by doing ‘good stuff’ in these areas. Maybe helping out in a children’s club or doing some other community project. Maybe a soup kitchen or a food bank. Social projects are ten a penny in Niddrie (and other schemes). There are countless charities and foundations getting financed off the back of the people who live here. The government seems happy to throw hundreds of thousands of pounds at a variety of projects from self-help, to the arts, to encouraging‘green issues’. Some, doubtless, are legitimate and necessary, and others a momentous waste of time and money. Worryingly, many churches seem to take an almost uncritical leaf out of these secular approaches to working in areas like ours and are, lemming like, following suit.

In my opinion, most inner-city housing schemes do not need crisis intervention and rehabilitation programmes in order to deal with the issues their residents face. Rather, they need deep, Holy Spirit filled, spiritual renewal and even deeper thought on biblical, ethical developmental approaches in terms of community regeneration. We need to be revitalising and planting local churches. Also, if we are going to have any hope of resolving some of the generational malaise that blights these areas, we must do it in conjunction with local people. That, obviously, raises questions:

How do we work in partnership with local people? How do we encourage one another to invest in the long-term future of our schemes for the benefit of future generations? How do we plant, raise, and train truly indigenous leaders in housing schemes?

Surely, it is done in the long-term? This is a process that is going to take 20 years plus before we make real inroads. We can’t undo the neglect and damage of three decades overnight. Yet, many churches are still looking on with what I call a ‘crisis mindset’. They are not thinking past the needy people in front of them. I saw it in Brazil with street children. Many well-intentioned Christians would come out to work with the children and immediately begin spending thousands and thousands of pounds building recuperation homes and various other projects. Whilst they met an immediate and grave need, they didn’t actually (or ultimately) deal with the root of the problem. Millions of pounds came in and many amazing institutions were built, but the problem just wouldn’t (and isn’t going) away. That is why my wife and I fought very hard with the ‘Off the Streets Project’ we founded to concentrate on church planting and community development. Am I saying that we should close homes and shut off crisis aid? Again, I am not. But, I do question their spiritual validity and long-term effectiveness when they stand on their own without deeper thought and consideration for the longer term.

In the UK, I believe that we should let the state do its job, for better or worse. We need to evaluate our outreach to the poor (where it exists) with a more critical eye and leave behind our middle-class guilt complex. It is damaging both to the middle class and the so-called ‘poor’ that it’s supposed to be helping. There are many ways to evaluate the labels, ‘poor’ and ‘deprived’ in Western culture, and this is not the place to do it. But, let me assure you, the‘poor’ in Niddrie (and countless other schemes in our land) lack hope, not money. They can get that easier than us and, often, far more of it than you would dare believe. Churches (and Christians in general) need to be careful that we are not suffering from‘soup kitchen syndrome’. This is where we react to the needs of those around us and immediately begin operating a‘handout’ system of help as our only real method of outreach.

Recently, I have been observing a new trend in church planting. No plan is apparently now complete without the addition of some sort of mercy ministry to encourage believers to aid the poor and oppressed of our major cities. On the one hand, I applaud this sentiment and, on the other, it makes me feel slightly uneasy. Well done to the evangelical church for waking up (at last) to the thought that God might actually be interested in poverty, oppression, and injustice. But, what is slightly galling for seasoned practitioners like myself, are those churches who have ignored our ministry for years (and left it to the work of parachurch organisations or ‘mission halls’) are now hosting talking head conferences, in their plush buildings, lecturing us on the principle of Jubilee in Leviticus. It’s almost as if ministry to the poor or mercy ministries is the new test of missional orthodoxy in parts of the evangelical world. And, yet again, the middle-class power brokers are dictating the rules of the game and the rate at which it gets played. Any questioning of that is seen as ‘sour grapes’ or ‘having an attitude’ or (as I am often accused) ‘hating the middle class’.

Thankfully, in Scotland at least, the tide seems to be turning. Thanks to the work of the EosGP and its collection of churches working together, scheme ministry is being taken not only seriously, but we are allowed a seat at the table and treated as equals. Neil Macmillan and Bob Ackroyd of The Free Church College work in partnership with us and help us to train some of our upcoming young leaders. Many other churches are giving us a platform and a voice. Paul Rees and Charlotte Chapel have been of significant help. Organisations like Solas not only promote our efforts with 20schemes but David Robertson, in particular, has given us great advice in dealing with some behind the scenes legal issues in regard to our church. They treat us respectfully and without any sense of being patronising. We listen to them and glean every possible good thing we can to help the ministry here. There is a real sense of mutuality developing as we serve one another. Having a bad attitude and overcoming social barriers is not just a one-way street. I have had to repent of my sinful attitudes and woefully bad presuppositions about ‘posh people’ just as much as (I hope) they have. There has been misunderstandings and confusion over issues but, I have found, as we have grown in friendship and trust, we have worked it out (and I have, largely, learned to stop being a plum—although I’m still a work in progress).

The FIEC have given us a UK platform. Steve Timmis & Tim Chester with the Crowded House and A29Europe have given us a platform and treated us with respect. The Crowded House boys even invited me to a training day and sat patiently through my ramblings, even though most of it probably sounded like Kindergarten stuff to them. In the US, 9Marks still remain one of our staunchest supporters and offer every help they can (they do not give us money!). Ligonier Ministries have come on board to help us develop an online curriculum. Practical Shepherding and Brian Croft have been an amazing source of encouragement to us. We have moved past paternalism and on to real partnership. The benefit to us has been incalculable as we learn to think for ourselves and allow others to speak into our ministry in order for it to be better.

Each have risen to the challenge of helping us develop our training material, our vision and honing our theological distinctives. We have a vision and we trust in the power of the gospel. 20schemes is building momentum and things are beginning to happen in the schemes. We need these friends. We need more friends. We hope in some small way we have been of help to them (in opening their eyes to our real needs if nothing else). We have the beginnings of a solid foundation as we seek to build a church revitalisation and indigenous training resourcing platform that will go on for decades. Keep praying for us. Pray for Scotland. Pray for our schemes.

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