Re-Balancing Our Resources

As I drove home from PCC last night, through Rochdale's dirty streets, past the rows of terraced houses, the dilapidated mills and, sad to say, a couple of prostitutes plying their trade, I was reflecting on the problem we have with deprivation within evangelicalism and perhaps particularly conservative evangelicalism. It's something I've come up against repeatedly in the last few years of my ministry. My current parishes are respectively in the bottom 1% and the bottom 5% in terms of deprivation in the country.

By Chris Allen, CC BY-SA 2.0,
https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4261841
On the PCC we were talking about reaching our community with the gospel. We are passionately evangelistic! But we were also talking about the consequences. The people in our community understandably come with needs and issues - they may be asylum-seekers, or economic immigrants, they may be struggling with their children, their marriage, their finances. They may not have enough to eat and they may not have knowledge to know how to change their circumstances. There may be legal, safeguarding, pastoral and practical issues. These are all hugely resource intensive, whether that resource is time, expertise, knowledge or finance.

We can take our political stances on this, and believe me, the longer you live in these contexts the more you realise the failures of secular government and that only gospel transformation is the way forward! But at root, this inevitably puts a huge burden on the church. It isn't possible, legal or right, to "just focus on teaching the gospel."

In this context, public services such as healthcare, education and social services, under whichever government, have grasped that deprived areas need more resources in the hope of lifting people out of the kind of poverty that most people in Christian circles perhaps don't even know exists in the UK any more. What concerns me, is that I see the opposite dynamic in the UK evangelical scene at the moment.

As we seek to reach these deprived communities, the full weight of the responsibility falls on one full time church worker - the vicar - and believe me it's exhausting! We have a tiny income, from relatively small churches that could in no way sustain having me if it wasn't for the Church of England system of paying clergy independently of their churches' contribution (and one suspects this is not far away from changing!).

We struggle to survive and find people to be wardens and treasurers and so forth with the few people we have taking on multiple roles and often exhausting themselves in retirement. Despite our efforts, there seems little hope of better paid people coming to serve with us and help us both with their skills and their finances. Why would they want to live here and come to a church that has so little to offer them? Even with significantly better financial support than most schemes we struggle to attract any interest from potential ministry trainees.

I'm going to take a risk here and name some of what hurts as a small church minister in this context. I see the huge staff teams of the more wealthy churches and think of the difference one of them would make to me. I see the cash and talent rich congregations and wonder why they never come to serve in poorer places where they could make a huge difference. I see the millions spent to have a church building with all the mod-cons and think of the difference a tiny percentage of that money could make. I see the inoculation of congregations to mission to the whole nation, because they can't imagine going to a church with less good programs, buildings and the like. Perhaps most painful, I see the indifference to more deprived areas and people.

Ultimately I see failure. I think I could see the purpose of it all if I was seeing good numbers of people coming to Christ in the large, well-resourced churches, but I don't. I see huge resources going to servicing comfortable Christians. I know that's a generalisation and it is certainly born out of my own frustrations, which makes it risky, but I don't see much evidence to the contrary. For what it's worth, even with our limited resources, I suspect we punch well above our statistical weight in new disciples!

Do you see what I mean when I say we see the opposite dynamic to that in public services? In the evangelical churches, perhaps especially the conservative evangelical churches, all the resources go to the rich areas and the poor areas are starved.

The question must come back as to whether that is Biblically right. It's not easy to entirely parallel in the New Testament, but it would seem to me in the New Testament that there is evidence of larger churches sacrificially giving their best staff to help in other areas (e.g. Paul and Barnabas from Antioch in Acts 13:1-3). We know that Paul was encouraged to help the poor in the church (Galatians 2:10) and we know it was something he took seriously for the collection for the Jerusalem church. On that biblical basis it would seem at least justified to ask for something of a rebalancing of the resources.

A second question would be whether it was strategically right. For what it's worth I think the leaders of evangelicalism in the UK over the last 100 years have led us to the brink of disaster. The UK church has probably been more effective at making disciples in other countries than it has been at reaching most of the UK in the last 100 years. There are huge swathes of the country with only very few and very tiny faithful churches at best. Strategically, we need to take it on the chin, all our models have catastrophically failed, leaving us with a tiny percentage of the population as evangelical Christians. Looking at a few big churches and holding them up as examples is simply a way of hiding from the truth. Again, it would at least seem reasonable to suggest that a different strategy is needed that may well require a re-balancing to happen.

Next time I write on this, I'll have a go at suggesting what could happen.

Comments

  1. A very honest and well-timed critique. Thanks for sharing this, Stephen.

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  2. Being a member of a rural village church I feel your pain. we are in the same situation. When I see how much money is spent in cafe's at new wine night after night and the amount taken in offerings howevefr generous I feel that there is somehow an imbalance when as a small church serving a rural village we find it increasingly difficult to raise funds and even meet our parish share. How about a twinning or adoption of small inner city struggling churches and rural churches by the larger more afluent ones. Wouldn't it be wonderful if folks felt called to be 'sent out' to worship and support the struggling parishes. Bless you for sharing.

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  3. I've been feeling exactly this way recently, and I'm in London, so it wouldn't even be a big move for some of those who go to the big, well resourced churches! I'm pondering writing to a friend who works for HTB but not sure it will make any difference...

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