May 20, 2013

The UK Church and the Poor: Why Have We Fallen So Far and What Can Be Done About It? (1)

Since the mid-1990s, the demographic of the UK has shifted from the 1950s/60s pyramid, with the bottom layer being the working poor, to a diamond. The thickest middle layer includes the aspirant middle-class that has grown from the manual labouring working class; there is a narrower layer of labouring working class; and then a growing layer of underclass who are third- and almost fourth-generation unemployed. These last are relatively skill-less in any kind of community leadership and therefore cannot be drawn into Christian leadership in the same way that UPA parishes and churches used to rely upon those who gained skills as Tenants' or Trades Union leaders becoming elders, church stewards, wardens, etc. Estates are splintering between retired, long-term tenants who have often been in work, ‘bad’ tenants moved in from other social housing (drug users, etc.) and a highly transient group including asylum-seekers and economic migrants from overseas.

This past week, about 150 people met in St. Giles church, Derby for the “Reaching the Unreached Conference 2013”. Most people there represented individuals, churches, and organisations trying to bring the gospel to some of the largest unreached people in our country right now: the inner-city poor. The housing estates & schemes of the UK are, largely, spiritual wastelands as local churches have aged, shut, or moved out of town. We have been left with several generations of people not only untouched by the good news of Jesus Christ, but also with a major shortage of indigenous leadership at local church levels. Para-church organisations have largely failed at establishing, discipling and training young men and women to stay within and/or establish healthy, gospel centred, local church communities. That is not to say that they have not seen fruit. It is just that this fruit has not been tied into the local church (largely because they don’t exist in these areas). Therefore, what we need in the UK right now is a church revitalisation and planting movement that incorporates indigenous training into its DNA.

If we think back almost 40 years ago when the Lausanne Covenant presented these ideals to the broader evangelical world:

We also acknowledge that some of our missions have been too slow to equip and encourage national leaders to assume their rightful responsibilities. Yet we are committed to indigenous principles, and long that every church will have national leaders who manifest a Christian style of leadership in terms not of domination but of service. We recognise that there is a great need to improve theological education, especially for church leaders. In every nation and culture there should be an effective training programme for pastors and laity in doctrine, discipleship, evangelism, nurture and service. Such training programmes should not rely on any stereotyped methodology but should be developed by creative local initiatives according to biblical standards.(Col. 1: 27,28; Acts 14:23; Tit. 1:5,9; Mark 10:42-45; Eph. 4:11,12)

So, the question becomes: How do we get from our dire situation on the ground today to the future spiritual ideals of indigenous leadership, as communicated above?

Three things come to mind:

  1. We are going to have to rely on ‘cultural outsiders’ (British, American or otherwise) to help us in a fledgling church revitalisation and church-planting movement in the UK.
  2. We are going to have to train these outsiders to be on the look-out for ‘cultural insiders’ as they make the transition to indigeneity.
  3. Ultimately, we are going to have to train a new generation of ‘culturally indigenous’ leaders.

In other words, we have to be more intentional in our ministries on estates/schemes. We have to do more than pay lip service to the principles espoused in the Lausanne Covenant. 40 years after these words were written, not only do we have few indigenous church leaders in estates and schemes in the UK, but we have very few gospel-preaching churches in which indigenous training is a priority. Why is this so? Let me offer a couple of suggestions in what is obviously a complicated and nuanced discussion.

  • Converts from poorer areas may have been welcomed into the church as believers but, far too often, have been overlooked for spiritual training and leadership. Leadership in so many of our churches has been the domain of the middle classes and professionally qualified for the last few decades, if not longer. There are those who will argue that this is not true, or that to say such things shows nothing more than a spiritual chip on my shoulder, but the awful lack of churches in these areas does not lie. A quick survey of church leadership across the denominational divide only lends weight to this argument. The problem with many leaders and leadership training programmes is that they, often inadvertently, operate within their own cultural milieu. I think it was the Catholic theologian, Ivan Illich, who first coined the term iatrogenesis to describe the process whereby those in leadership “consciously or unconsciously induce people to think that only they have the knowledge and skills for the situation” combined with the ‘effortless superiority’ of many clergy makes trusting vulnerable and fragmented local people as leaders a very tall order. We need to open up the playing field, intentionally, when it comes to training local leaders. Please note that this does not mean lowering the bar or engaging in some sort of class affirmative action. The spiritual qualifications for leadership of the local church applies across all cultural and socio-economic boundaries. But the hard truth is that, here in the UK, many of our church (and institutional) leaders should stop overlooking those who lack professional qualifications or who don’t fit into the same social circle. I have sat in far too many presentations and read far too many adverts for internships targeted at ‘post graduates or those looking for a career break’. We need to open up the playing field.
  • We need a fresh perspective on mercy ministry. In my opinion, much of what passes for outreach or mercy ministry actually hinders, not helps, the spiritual development of poorer people in the UK. In all the resurgent talk of ‘reaching the poor’ we need to watch out for what is known, in missiological circles, as ‘malevolent generosity, disabling help, and/or crippling paternalism’. Lots of this kind of soup kitchen type ministry comes wrapped up in a nice package to make it look like mission, when often it is not. Much of the help extended to council estate and housing schemes is offered by para-church outsiders who, instead of creating a culture of local autonomy and ownership, have often left us with a crippling dependency and an impotent approach to leadership. I was at a recent discussion on ministry to the poor with a room full of church leaders, and one took exception to my comments about mercy ministry being insufficient by itself to help grow indigenous leadership among the poor. “But, we have started a soup kitchen in our church and it has transformed our community”, came the indignant reply. “How exactly has it done that”? I enquired. “Well, those who were on the fringes of our church now serve weekly and have become much more engaged in the mission of the church.” “Great”, I said. “So, it's helped your church people feel better about themselves. But, tell me, how has it transformed the people whom you are serving? How many of them have to come to faith, been actively discipled and are now engaged in some form of church ministry and/or leadership development”? “None, yet”, he revealed. “OK. So what plan do you have in place for them”?“We haven't really thought about that”, he admitted.

My point exactly. Mercy ministry is great if it is part of a bigger plan and not the end of the story for those receiving the often much needed help. The problem about the way it is expressed in many evangelical circles today is that it is either a tag-on to existing church ministries or a way of reaching the “cultural shapers” in our cities, often, ironically, to the detriment of the spiritual growth and development of the indigenous poor. So, what is the way forward? It is easy to slap a few sentences on a keyboard in blog world and moan about the status quo.

I want to spend the next week going through some suggestions for how we could progress.

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