50 years ago, in Scottish schemes, gospel halls were thriving as City Missions opened outreach posts on housing schemes. Many never quite made it to local church status as they were run more by committees than by elders. City centre churches saw them as nothing more than outreach centres they could send interested members to serve at. It was also good for breaking in young preachers or evangelists. But they were nothing more than that. The people who were converted there were never seen as legitimate pastoral candidates or future leaders. That was for the bright eyed, erudite, educated types. So much effort was put into evangelism, but next to nothing into meaningful discipleship and training for indigenous believers. Now, decades later, we’re paying for that short sightedness and cultural snobbery.
The gospel landscape in these areas is now as bleak as it has ever been. City Missions have been in decline across the UK and, slowly but surely sold off, or handed over, their stock. Some of these places have tried to go it alone and others, like Niddrie, have established churches. These are very few and far between. In the main, people in these places aged, became detached from their surrounding culture, have closed or are in their final death throes. What is left within the schemes in terms of local church witness is a decidedly mixed, and often polarized, bag. One the one side we have small, theologically conservative evangelical churches that historically fought for doctrinal and theological purity at the expense of cultural engagement (for fear of watering down the gospel). They now, by and large, find themselves on the fringes of schemes, with aged, dying congregations. Very often most of their membership live outwith the schemes anyway. They have a gospel but with nobody to preach it to. Sadly, this suits their worldview of ‘them against the world’ and it is leaving generations with no clue about the good news of Jesus. On the other hand, we have churches that have sought to adapt and engage with culture at the expense of biblical truths. They tend to be very socially aware but, ironically, have the same problem of aged, dying congregations. They are viewed as little more than a social work agency and people don’t come when evangelism is not practiced.
The reality is that liberal and conservative alike are in deep trouble, with the real losers being the very people they are supposed to be reaching with the good news of Jesus Christ. The poor, the marginalized and the forgotten fringe members of our society. So, whilst the churches across denominational and theological divides have been drawing their doctrinal lines, many thousands, maybe millions, of souls have been perishing for lack of witness. In the words of some old, dead dude: ‘A plague on both your houses’.
Here’s how it looks in practice:
Jim goes to the little gospel hall in his scheme. They preach the gospel every week. He’s been going there for 50 years. He remembers the day when it was packed to the rafters and the children’s ministry had 100’s in attendance. They would knock on doors and hand out tracts and people would come along on a Sunday and hear their guest speaker from out of town. That doesn’t happen anymore. Gentrification killed their church, as many of their number were re-housed to make way for new developments. There are only six of them left now. The rest left or died long ago. It’s hard to get out and knock on doors anymore. Everybody is too old and, besides, nobody answers the doors these days anyway. They try to run guest services but they can’t book speakers to come. They can’t pay them and, besides, the people they know are too old to come out. They had a young couple in their 50’s come once but they never came back. They need somebody to come and help them, but who’s going to come to a scheme and take them on?
Ann goes to the local Parish church. It doesn’t preach the gospel. In fact, she wouldn’t understand that kind of language. She’s been faithful there for a long time. She loves the church and the little homilies on Sunday make a nice break in her week. She helps out at the jumble sales when she can and has her name on the tea rota. She’s never thought to invite her Indian neighbours to church because her vicar says we’re all God’s children worshipping him in our own way. There are only a few of them left on Sunday’s these days, but the vicar sits on a lot of council committees so it must be OK.
Gary is in his late 20’s and has a real desire to reach the lost. He works for a Christian charity and his job is to be a care worker for some of their clients. That means he takes them to their doctor’s appointments, to see their social workers, and ensures that they are properly settled into their community living accommodation. Gary knows a lot of people in the scheme through his clients and a few of them know he’s a Christian, but none of them really know what that means. Gary is allowed to share his faith if people ask, but he’s not allowed to proselytize or force his views on anybody. He would probably get into trouble with his bosses, and they would probably lose their funding, if he was found to be evangelising the clients. It’s just easier to keep quiet to be honest. Anyway, he is being a good witness just by being in his clients’ lives, isn’t he? He doesn’t bother with either of the churches on the scheme as he’s often too busy with his work.
So, what happens here is that Jim judges Ann and her church for not being concerned with the eternal destiny of people. After all, what’s the point of being nice when people are going to hell? Ann looks at Jim and his people with disgust. How can they believe all that fire and brimstone stuff? That’s not very loving, is it? Gary looks down on both of them and wonders why we can’t all just get along. The sad reality is that the people in all of these situations are trapped in a downward spiral. After all, how can people be evangelized if there’s nobody to reach out to, the gospel has been lost, and doing good has replaced speaking gospel truth? The legacy of all three approaches is that Christianity is declining and all of them need a radical rethink on the nature of biblical evangelism.