April 18, 2020

The New Urban Crisis: Jesus Didn’t Start ‘Upstream’

In Part 2, we established that wealthy churches are, despite initial good intentions, failing to fund or support poorer and scheme-based churches.

In partnership with Acts 29, we established ‘Church In Hard Places’ precisely because of this problem. This is a network of men from around the globe who are working away in poor communities, often with no support, and struggling financially. On a recent call I told them all, “No real help is coming for us from some of these major planting networks and upstream churches. We are going to have to band together to help one another. We are going to have to help each other train our own interns and future leaders. We are going to have to club together to fund one another. We may get the odd bone thrown to us now and again, but we are largely on our own.”

As practitioners in poor communities, we have to begin the slow work of rebuilding churches and growing leaders in our local areas. There is no significant ‘trickle-down’ help coming our way anytime soon.

Unbiblical Approach

Unless I’ve missed something, I don’t see how this ‘top-down’ approach is biblical anyway. Surely, if the Lord wanted to use that strategy to reach the poor with the good news, He would have come down as a Roman governor or the emperor. That would have had a trickle-down effect! But instead he came as a Northern Jew, dirt poor, and insignificant in the eyes of the world. Shepherds and women (not at all the ‘cream’ of society) heralded his coming. His ministry was among the poor and outcast.

Therefore, it seems to me that a much more biblical approach would be the ‘downstream church’. Maybe we ought to be thinking about a ‘trickle-up’ approach to church planting? Maybe we could call it the ‘Salmon approach’. Upstream and against the tide. Let me be clear. I am not arguing against planting ‘upstream’ (although I despise this terminology and what it represents). What I am advocating is church planting and revitalisation across cultures—especially across the class divide. I am saying ‘planting upstream’ as a strategy to reach the poor does not work and has little biblical merit or basis.

Talk is Cheap

In the past few decades, evangelicals in the UK and the U.S. seem to be working on different church-planting and evangelism criteria than that of the Apostle Paul, who told the Corinthians: “Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential, not many were of noble birth” (1 Cor. 1:26). Too often, the Church reflects the values and methodology of the materialistic culture around us. We talk about the poor. A lot. But what do we do? Very little.

I have developed a principle—let’s call it the ‘trickle-down theorem’: The richer the church, the more likely they are to talk about the poor and marginalised. But in reality, we prefer the millionaire’s tithe to the widow’s mite. When we do a church plant, we go for the wealthy areas, justifying ourselves by saying, “Once we are established, then we will reach the poor.” Here’s the thing: It almost never happens. But we console ourselves, saying, “At least we hand out soup.” But the poor need the gospel even more than they need a full belly. Biblical love, that respects and sees all human beings as equally made in the image of God, is needed. Not the 21st-century version of charity.

I know the objections already. I know the charges of socialism, hypocrisy, liberalism, etc. I know that there are in the Bible examples of the Lord calling the wealthy, the elites, the powerful, and the privileged. But these are the exceptions. The ‘not many’. The biblical strategy is not to reach the wealthy that we might reach the poor; it is to reach the poor that we might reach the wealthy (who in reality are the hardest to reach).

But we don’t believe that. It’s why I can get any number of church groups from the U.S. to come and church plant in central London, Oxford, Edinburgh. and St Andrews. . . . But ask them to come to, or finance work in, Doncaster, Dartford, or Dundee, and they are not interested. Apparently, these are not places of ‘influence’ (like Nazareth!). We have reversed the biblical criteria and then claim that we are doing so in order to be faithful to the Bible!

Standing ovation from me on this one! But back to the book. (This is supposed to be a review, after all!)

Our class geography no longer follows the old pattern of rich suburb and poor city. Highly-paid knowledge workers, the affluent, and young people have been returning in droves to urban centres over the past decade or two, while growing numbers of the poor and disadvantaged are being edged out into the suburbs…. Our class geography is now being reshaped into a more complex and variegated pattern that I call the Patchwork Metropolis…that is being split into areas of tightly clustered zones of concentrated advantage and even larger swathes of concentrated disadvantage that crisscross cities and suburbs alike. (136)

So what can be done? Florida offers some suggestions.

Several Solutions

1. Build more cleverly on already existing sites.

We cannot produce more land, but we can be smarter in what and how we build.

2. Build more affordable rental housing.

Not like in Niddrie, where to rent a new-build property you have to be earning at least the national minimum wage, which cuts out most of the residents and those in low-income service jobs. According to Florida, rent inequality in the UK is very high. On average, renters pay about 47% of their income on rent, compared to 23% for homeowners.

3. Turn low-paid service jobs into middle-class work.

“Henry Ford’s insight – that assembly-line workers should be paid enough to buy the cars they were making – gets to the nub of the matter.” (217) In other words, how demoralising is it to work one or two service jobs and still be unable to afford the rental price of properties near where you work? Yet, that is the case for most service-class workers. How can we realistically afford to pay more? Florida explains:

Higher pay is not just an increased cost – it can be a path to increased productivity and profit. Poorly paid, poorly treated workers are unmotivated, demoralised, and disengaged. Low-paying companies experience costly turnover. Workers who are paid better and treated better are more motivated and more engaged and can become a useful source of innovation and productivity improvement. (218)

4. Invest in people and places.

“Our current approaches to combatting poverty can be divided into two basic categories: people-based approaches that provide resources to poor families or help them move to new and better neighbourhoods, and place-based approaches that attempt to improve the conditions of disadvantaged neighbourhoods by investing in schools, providing needed social services, and reducing crime and violence. We need to do both.” (220)

5. Build and develop refugee cities which harness and utilise the skills and gifts of the dispossessed.

Overall, I found the book easy to read, informative, and provocative. Do I think all service- and working-class people aspire to be middle class? Not really. I think Florida thinks being middle-class is a good thing and a good goal to have in life. I think owning your own property and/or being able to afford your rent does not make you middle-class. It is much more complicated than that! But, that aside, this is a book worth buying. Of course, it’s not Christian, but it does help us think through current church-planting strategies and how they are mimicking world trends (not that this is a bad thing). It will certainly stimulate your thinking, even if you find yourself disagreeing with some of his conclusions (which I found to be way too idealistic).

This is the final post of a three-part review of Richard Florida’s book, ‘The New Urban Crisis’. You can read part one here and part two here.

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