May 15, 2013

Why American Church Planters in Scotland Need Not Be the End of the World

I recently returned from a two-week trip to the U.S.A, in an effort to drum up support for the work of 20schemes. In a packed schedule, I visited Immanuel Baptist Church in Sacramento, pastored by Robert Briggs, one of the members of our advisory board. In partnership with 9Marks, we did a one-day conference on reaching the inner-city poor with the gospel of Jesus. It was a great time, with wonderfully hospitable hosts who have a great love for Scotland and a real heart for our ministry in Niddrie.

My second week was in Kentucky, where I spent time with some great men from around the States, led by some even more generous men with a great desire to serve pastors of all stripes. It was immensely encouraging. Coupled with that, I got to do some more meetings about 20schemes, preach, and answer 100’s of questions about the work of reaching Scotland’s poorest with the gospel of Jesus. In both States, one question came up time and again:

Can Americans really get past their culture, move to the poor areas of Scotland, and plant churches there?

It’s a legitimate question, and one that encourages me every time it is asked in the U.S. It shows, if nothing else, the self-awareness of those asking the question. Here in the UK, we have been facing criticism in some (middle class) quarters who feel that encouraging Americans to come to Scotland is a huge mistake. The thought (where there is any) being that they will just not be able to make the (often huge) cultural leap needed to engage effectively in housing schemes. Now, it is a legitimate issue and we do need to address it. So, let me be clear.

  • At 20schemes, we would prefer to recruit Scottish people above all others in an attempt to reach poor Scottish people.
  • We would prefer these Scottish people to come from Scottish housing schemes so as to be best prepared to engage with the culture.

We do have some Scottish people interested in applying to 20schemes. However, ALL of them are from middle-class backgrounds. We also have 8 applicants from the U.S. at the moment. ALL of them are from middle-class backgrounds. So, here lies the issue: which middle-class cultural group is the best one to reach Scotland’s schemes? The answer is difficult.

Middle-class Americans who come over here actually tend to do better with the culture than their British counterparts (including, surprisingly, Scots people). Certainly, they are more naive when it comes to the culture, but that is a help rather than a hindrance. They are not hindered by an inbuilt fear of scheme culture and life. They are more open, friendly, and hospitable, naturally, than their British counterparts. Their cultural gregariousness is actually a benefit in a culture such as ours whereas it is frowned upon in middle-class England and regarded as arrogance. Indeed, I would argue forcefully, from a decade of observing international teams both here and in Brazil, that middle-class Americans have far less of a cultural jump to make than the British middle classes in our particularised scheme culture. Certainly, an American accent is regarded with far less suspicion and hostility than an English one!

Can and should middle-class Americans move to schemes to plant churches? Yes, they can and they should. Should middle-class Brits do the same? Yes. If God has called a particular individual, does it matter what their class or culture is in the long run? God is above that. We can’t ignore the difficulties, but we should not allow cultural snobbery to dictate a move of God’s Spirit. Scotland is in trouble. Her housing schemes are a vast spiritual wasteland. Nobody is reaching them effectively through church revitalisation or planting. This is not to say that there are not pockets of encouragement and good things going on. I am sure there are. But, as a country, we are not seeing a generation of men rise up to want to win back the schemes for Christ.

Many of the men I know who are at Bible colleges and/or on local church internships, whilst sympathetic to the cause, have no intention of going into housing schemes. They want to be youth workers, pastoral assistants, or missionaries, but they certainly don’t want to be any of those things in areas of urban deprivation (not in Scotland anyway).

Why is that? I think there are a several reasons. Firstly, many churches and gospel ministries in these places are dying, often with aging congregations holding on to history and past glories, and thus unwilling to change. In a world of options, men would prefer to go elsewhere or plant their own church rather than have to deal with that kind of political battle. Secondly, almost every man I have spoken to recently about our ministry, WITHOUT EXCEPTION, has pointed to ‘family responsibilities’ as the reason they can’t seriously consider our kind of ministry. Thirdly, I think there is a problem with how middle-class churches and institutions are training people. We have more seminars and conferences than ever before. We have more churches who are training leaders than ever before. Yet, still this shortfall.

The larger problem, I fear, is in the fact that we lack the courage to take risks at a local church level in the UK. Churches want the perfect CV, the perfect candidate and the perfect answers to theological questions (or not as the case may be). The pond we are fishing in here in the schemes is never going to produce that (certainly not at the outset). Local men are not going to handle 40 hour a week lectures on Exegesis and Hermeneutics. They are not going to be polished speakers or have the finesse of fine apologetics. But, unless I’m reading my Bible wrong, the early disciples weren’t University graduates either. They were common men with a love for the Lord, supernaturally endowed with the spiritual gifts necessary to build the church.

In all the talk of biblical manhood and being manly, it seems that growing a beard and going to a manly type conference is as near as we are getting to encouraging entry into housing scheme ministry. Everybody agrees to its necessity, and are wishing me lots of luck in what we are trying to do, but that’s about it. Therefore, we need a new approach in how we tackle the problem of planting in our specific field. Scrap that, we need an approach full stop. Our aim here is to generate, at least initially, outside interest in order to stimulate inside growth and momentum. If we have to go the States and other countries then we will. It is better than sitting here wringing our hands at the dearth of young men wanting to step out in faith. We are certainly starting down a risky road. But I think it is necessary. I think that such is the problem in our country at this moment in history that, in God’s providence, we have little choice but to take these steps. I think we are not going to see local men taking responsibility unless we put steps in ourselves to ensure future growth and development. I think it is going to be a long, drawn out, and painful process. I think it is going to be a lot of growing on the job. I think it is going to be intuitive, a lot of making it up as we go along, and maybe a few painful mistakes along the way.

We need men and women from all cultures seeking to proclaim the gospel and establish healthy churches. When did we get so uppity about it? No, we don't want gobby, glorified tourists swarming the country, but neither do we want to do nothing. Pray for us at 20schemes as we seek to provide solutions that are both God honouring and sustainable. Superficially, it will look like a lot of outsiders coming in, but underneath we are working on a long-term, sustainable strategy to grow truly indigenous planters, women’s workers, and ministry apprentices. But we need more than a good plan and a well-worked strategy. We need God’s favour and the support—not the critical cynicism—of our Christian brothers and sisters.

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