The Bishop of Burnley’s challenge to the Church has set me thinking about my experience of church in the North West and in London.
I grew up in Liverpool and was dedicated in the Green Lanes Bethel Chapel. The chapel’s historic decline mirrored that of the surrounding city of Liverpool, but today the church is reinvigorated, a thriving member of the FIEC grouping. As my Dad goes out on the streets of Liverpool with members of a Nigerian RCCG church, he sees people making professions of faith.
The North West of England, around Burnley, remains poor with rates of depression and drug addiction at historic highs, and yet my friends at Manchester City Mission tell me of a deep spiritual hunger. “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few…” (Matt 9:37).
In the council of estates of London, I find a spiritual openness that I don’t find in the leafier suburbs.
In my days as a manager at a multinational food manufacturer, professing a belief in God was like admitting a belief in a magical sky fairy, it was intellectual suicide. On the council estates of Dagenham though, most people will accept a word of prayer. And across the city, we have seen almost 400 people from these least-reached communities start attending church through the work of London City Mission (figures taken from the first half of the year).
The middle-class values I learnt at university taught me to question everything, and to reject claims to absolute truth. I was taught to think for myself, and stand on my own two feet, rather than rely on the close-knit community I had grown up with at my Catholic Comprehensive.
My experience seemed designed to inoculate me against gospel faith in Jesus, but thankfully there was a friendly church nearby that welcomed me in and helped me persevere. I give thanks for the ministry of so many Christians who invest their time to ensure that students have a chance to hear the gospel during the impressionable years when they first leave home.
I feel challenged though to remember the vast harvest field made up of the 60% of society who don’t fit into the middle-class life cycle of student, professional, comfortable family. The gospel compels us to reach all peoples with the hope and good news of Jesus Christ - not only those who can afford to put money into the collection plate to pay for a highly educated Oxbridge vicar.
Polarised society - polarised church?
Our society has become increasingly polarised between the haves and the have nots. Those that are on the property ladder and those for whom the ladder is a speck in the distance.
We have the self-dependent middle classes for whom, “our home is our castle”, and we have urban estates where intense loyalty is owed to an informal network of “family”. I am concerned that we have allowed divides from society to divide our churches as well, without pushing back with the “divide-breaking” love that the gospel of Jesus inspires in our hearts.
The multicoloured salvation plan of God
Paul lived in a society polarised between Jew and Gentile, those who were law-keepers and those who kept loose moral standards. He prayed that the church would stand out in stark contrast to its surroundings.
In his letter to the Ephesians Paul says that the Lord “is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph 2:14). Paul goes on to say that the Lord’s plan was to “create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace” (Eph 2:15).
Paul’s belief was that the Church was to display the “manifold wisdom of God” or the “multicoloured salvation plan of God” (Eph 3:10). That wouldn’t be possible if Jews and Gentiles went their separate ways. The Lord who died to bring reconciliation between Jew and Gentile does not want his people divided again along lines of class or race.
A divide-defying love
The ‘Talking Jesus’ research published last year suggests that 80% of church goers have been to university or equivalent, compared to only 40% of the general public. 1 in 6 graduates attend church, whilst for non-graduates that figure is 1 in 30.
Our Bibles call us to a divide-defying love, where older ladies care for the younger ladies, where the healthy care for the sick, and where we give until we hurt to help the church in need.
Yet, too often we become narrow clubs for “people just like us”, governed by the economics of the market place. Too often we close down congregations in the poorer parts of town because they are not economically sustainable.
The entire Gentile church - to which we belong - was established with the principle “Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do” (Gal 2:10). When we forget the poor, we put at risk the very foundations on which our church family is based.
Graham Miller, Chief Executive for London City Mission