In the second part of Bishop Philip North’s article he suggests seven steps that will help us to become a church of and for the poor.
In order to turn the world upside down we need to turn the church upside down. So what do we need to do?
First, we need to reflect on the content of our proclamation. There is a perception that there is a single, verbal Gospel message that can be picked up and dropped from place to place. ‘Christ died for our sins.’ ‘Life in all its fullness.’ Those well-known statements which so easily trip off the Christian tongue. But the Gospel is not a message; it is a person, Jesus Christ, and the way he speaks into different contexts and situations differs from place to place. If you turn up on an estate with nice, tidy, complacent answers to questions no one is asking, they will tear you to shreds. Successful evangelism begins with intense listening, with a profound desire to hear the issues on people’s minds and a genuine open heart to discern how Jesus speaks into them. If you’re in debt, what is the good news? If you’re dependent on a foodbank to feed your children, what is the good news? If you’re cripplingly lonely and can’t afford the bus into town, what is the good news? Simple formulae, or trite clichés about God’s love won’t do as answers to these questions.
Of course there are answers, but we need an honesty and an openness and a desire to take risks in order to reach them. And once we have reached them, then our preaching, our teaching, our worship, our pastoral care, our common life, our approach to teaching, our whole sense of what it means to be a Christian must all be altered in order to accommodate them. Later this year we are going to launch a project to encourage estates practitioners and theologians to listen deeply to estates residents and then ask the question, ‘What is the good news here?’ We hope it will create a resource and a methodology that will be of much wider use.
Second, leadership. We need to raise up leaders in, for and from the urban church. The best person to speak the Gospel in an urban estate is someone who has grown up there, so we need to be courageous and take risks in raising up a local leadership. Catapulting in 200 white, well-educated, beautiful people from the nice bit of town will dispossess and disempower local residents. The impact will be to take their church away from them so that the church will become just another service provided on their behalf by patronising outsiders. In the Church of England our current structures for selecting and training licensed lay or ordained leaders are woefully unfit for purpose and deliver only white, graduate-class leaders. The time for tolerating this systemic failure is now over. We must take risks in raising up local leadership, leadership that cannot and will not speak the jargon-laden drivel of the contemporary church, but will instead have the Gospel energy to transform it.
And to raise up this new generation of leaders, we need our best clergy to commit significant periods of their ministries to the poorest areas. The task is now too urgent for excuses. The days in which priests hopped from a suburban parish to a nice market town to a cathedral close without ever going near the poorer estates cannot continue. I would urge anyone here who is a church leader from any denomination to listen to that challenge. I have heard many stories from clergy telling me that they cannot possibly work in an urban parish because they need the best schools for their children. But I have heard almost as many stories from clergy children brought up on estates telling me how that experience has made them compassionate for the vulnerable and passionate for the Gospel. Jesus proclaimed good news to the poor. We need our clergy to do the same.
Third, the church-planting movement, which is making such a difference in so many areas, needs to put the poor first rather than last. Let me take you back to one of my opening stories. In Blackpool, church life on the Mereside Estate had completely died out. So we found the money to put Linda Tomkinson on that estate along with her husband, Pete, who is training with the Church Army. On Sunday mornings they run a stall at the car boot sale. Through the week they run a community choir, a bereavement drop-in service, a community development group splendidly called the Mafia and much else besides. And through generous service they have seen church life grow and many people who were miles from the Lord come to faith. What is more, they are loving every single second of it. It is impossible to conceive of people taking greater delight in ministry.
HTB, New Wine and many dioceses and denominations are developing church planting strategies, but too many are aimed at the low-hanging fruit in fast regenerating urban areas or university towns. I am astonished at the number of people Jesus is calling to plant new churches as long as they are in Zones 1 and 2 of the London transport system. It’s the wrong place to start. Renewal comes from courageous mission to the places where it’s toughest. If you feel called to plant, we need you on the outer estates, we need you in our northern towns, we need you in areas where a majority of people come from other world faiths, we need you in those areas where the trendy coffee shops and artisanal bakers are hard to find. Come there if you really want to make a difference in Jesus’ name.
Fourth, we need to marry together service with proclamation. In an area of Sunderland I once knew well there were two churches. One, in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, was fabulous at community development work, providing services for refugees, projects for the elderly, schools ministry and so on. The other, a charismatic free church, was brilliant at evangelism and thought its sole aim was to convert people to Christ. The first is small and shrinking slowly. The second grew spectacularly but then declined just as quickly and is no more. One did service without proclamation. One did proclamation without service. To grow sustainably we must do both.
A feature of those opening stories was that they were about churches which both serve generously and proclaim boldly. If all we do is proclaim and ignore the hard reality of people’s lives, if all we offer is Jesus the living bread when people need real bread to put in their stomachs, no one will listen. We are hypocrites and the Gospel we speak is empty. On the other hand if all we do is serve and not proclaim, as many churches do, we are subjecting people to the greatest deprivation of all which, in the words of Pope Francis, is to be deprived of ever hearing the saving news of Jesus Christ. A feature of all growing urban churches is an intentional marriage of service and proclamation. A wonderful example of this is Christians Against Poverty, who do both brilliantly and fearlessly.
Fifth, we need patient presence. A feature of an anxious and paranoid church is that we have become obsessed with the quick win. We love those stories of people who have grown churches to a thousand within three years because they enable us to think that there are simple answers to complex questions. And that cult of the quick win is one of the factors that makes people afraid of urban ministry. It won’t deliver the ‘instant success’ to which we are addicted.
And it won’t. Urban and estates ministry is hard work and slow going. It takes years to become established, to win trust, to learn the questions, to form leaders, to work out how best to serve, to discern accessible ways of proclaiming, to win souls for Christ. And there will be many setbacks along the way, many leaders we form who move away, many families we work with who for no good reason disappear, many projects and initiatives we attempt that won’t get off the ground. That can be hard. But it’s real and it’s true and it’s the Gospel. Think of St Paul. He endured countless setbacks, there were arguments, there were places he could not enter. At one point he speaks about being ‘unbearably crushed’, This is real Christian ministry: it is cross-shaped, it hurts, it’s sacrificial. If it is simple it is inauthentic.
There is a great deal more that the diocesan or central structures of the Church can do to support its urban clergy, for example, abolishing the vacancy so that there can be stable leadership over many years even if church leaders want to move on. But the quick win is a delusion. Long-term, faithful, patient, loving presence is what the urban church needs.
Sixth, we need to accept that this is everyone’s concern and everyone’s problem. If the church wants to be present in places of poverty, it is no good to leave it up to a few heroic church leaders whilst the rest of us get on with our ordinary lives. The wider Church must support the church in urban areas, and do so in genuine and concrete ways. That means financial subsidy, it means letting go of its best leaders for urban ministry, it means support and prayer and encouragement, it means a willingness to listen to the urban church and amend its own life and structures accordingly. If you are not from an urban Church then think for a moment: in what ways is your church supporting an estates or inner urban Church? And if it is not, what does it need to change to do so? Don’t forget – your church only has the authority to proclaim in its own context because of your brother and sister Christians who are worshipping and serving in the toughest areas. You are the Church only because they are the Church.
And seventh, we need prayer. We need sincere, disciplined, authentic prayer because it is only through prayer that the Lord will soften our hearts and open our ears to the cry of the poor. Pray for the church in areas where it is hard to be the church. Pray for yourself so that you can discern how God is calling you to proclaim Good News to the poor.
I believe there is change, there is a new openness to being a church of and for the poor. There are a number of new and interesting initiatives and ideas; some significant books are starting to appear such as ‘A Church for the Poor’ by Martin Charlesworth and Natalie Williams. Pope Francis has reawakened many to centrality of this area of Christian ministry. But it is not enough. And it is not fast enough. We know the statistics. Within 10 years we will have all but lost the Church in the poorest areas. We will have become a complacent, smug church of and for the rich.
Let me end with a story. In Lancashire there is a very beautiful, Victorian church that was once a thriving place of worship for the working class community it served. But the area began to change. Many people of Asian origin moved in, much of the old housing was demolished and not replaced. The congregation dwindled away till there were only a couple of dozen people shivering away in a vast barn of a building. So they moved out of the church, which was made redundant to become a vast symbol of withdrawal and decline, and they now worship in an extended room in the old vicarage. Out of the window they can see the hulk of the building that they could not maintain. On the walls are pictures of the glory days when the streets were lined for the Whit Walk and they had forty choristers in the choir stalls. There are bits and pieces from the old church: the war memorial, some stained glass, and that ultimate symbol of Anglican life, the churchwarden’s wand. It is a church whose angel is one of guilt and grief and nostalgia. It is locked in its past.
That church seems to me to be a symbol of too much of our contemporary Christian life. We are so busy looking back at the church’s past that we fail to see ahead to God’s future. And that is especially a feature of the urban church where declining numbers and decaying buildings are the norm. People are so locked in memories of what they were that they cannot see God’s future. We see the church through the eyes of grief. If only things could be what they once were.
Yet what does Jesus say in the synagogue at Nazareth? ‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.’ He throws our gaze forward to God’s future. It is a vision of hope, a vision of joy, a vision of the triumph of the loving power of the cross.
That is the good news we must proclaim to the poor, the hope of God’s future. In that future there is justice for the oppressed. In that future there is food and drink for everyone. In that future, debt and sin is cancelled. In that future all is acceptance and all is love. That is our task, to proclaim God’s future and to do so not with fear or anxiety, but with joy. ‘When you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the blind, the lame,’ says Jesus. Let us invite everyone to the feast of the lamb. And let us start with those who most need good news of hope. For when we speak hope to the poor, we speak hope to everyone.
The Rt Revd Philip North CMP is Bishop of Burnley. This article forms the second part of his address to the New Wine ‘United’ Conference 2017. The first part was published in the July/August edition of New Directions.