Stepping In: The Need

I’m going to be writing about the need to reach our inner cities and council estates with the good news about Jesus and his death and resurrection. This series of articles arises out of a growing recognition that there is a great and terrible gap in our gospel witness. To be fair, Gospel witness in the UK is generally speaking hard work with only a small percentage of people coming to faith and aside from one or two churches, the story often seems to be about maintenance and decline. However, we are doing even worse on our estates and in our inner cities.

Unreached

In his book, Unreached, Tim Chester tells how:

“I once attended a lecturer at which the speaker showed a map of my city, Sheffield. The council wards were coloured different shades according to a series of social indicators: educational achievement, household income, benefit recipients, social housing, criminal activity, and so on. Slide after slide showed that the east side of the city was the needy, socially deprived half, compared to the more prosperous west. Where are all the churches? Counting all the various tribes of evangelicalism, the large churches are on the west side. The working class and deprived areas of our cities are not being reached with the gospel.”[1]

This is backed up by further statistical research.

“Research conducted by Tearfund in 2007 shows that church going in the UK is a middle class pursuit. Adults in social grades AB (professionals, senior and middle management) are over represented among both regular and occasional churchgoers. Meanwhile adults of social grade C2 and D (Semi-skilled and unskilled manual) have the highest proportion of non-churched.”[2]

If we seem to be seeing any fruit from Gospel work, it often seems to be amongst students and graduates. It is encouraging to hear about growing Christian Unions, of conversions at CU mission events and large churches in University areas. Some of those churches are encouraging church planting as graduates move away from University accommodation into other parts of the City. However, there tends to be a fixed migration into more prosperous and suburban areas. Council estates and inner city terraces tend to be off the main route.

It is worth remembering that whilst we often hear that about 80% of church members have received University education, only 32.6 per cent of 18 year olds went to University in 2017.[3] This is important. There have been increasing numbers quoted as going into higher education and the Higher Education Initial Participation Rate (HEIPR) annual measure suggests that on probability 49 percent of the population will enter Higher or Further education by the time they are 30.[4]  However, the HEIPR figure is only a probability not a certainty and furthermore:

“Higher education in this context means every kind of accredited higher education course, from two-year foundation degrees delivered at a local further education college, to PhDs from Cambridge.” [5] 

This means that whilst a lot of people will be involved in further education of some kind, not all will attend University and not all will receive degrees, If our focus is predominantly on mission to students and graduates, then we are effectively forgetting about the majority of the population who will never have the opportunity to attend a University mission and are unlikely to find themselves living next door to the graduate church plant member.

Trickle Down?

I believe that the disproportionate nature of church life is at least partly due bad decisions made, particularly in the 20th Century. Chester comments that the church wasn’t always biased to the prosperous.

“It was not always like this. The Great Awakening was largely a working-class movement. Although its leaders were middle class, the establishment treated their open air preaching with scorn.”[6]

He goes on to suggest the following factors that led to a situation where the church reached an educated elite at the expense of the working classes:

  1. The C of E parish system is not geared up for urbanisation[7]
  2. Going to church is seen as for respectable people who dress up in their Sunday best[8]
  3. “The last century has seen an explosion of entertainment opportunities.” The church is no longer the communal focal point. [9]
  4. We have focused on strategies of reaching “people of influence” such as students and graduates [10]
  5. Churches are geared up to reaching people through social networks and friendship evangelism which doesn’t fit in with working class people being more tied into local communities [11]
  6. Working Class people become Christians and then tend to engage with things that identify them as aspirational leading to a sense of becoming middle class and leaving their community behind. [12]

Some of those factors may seem unavoidable but there are some that we could have done something about. In particular,  we need to take note of point 4, the belief that by focusing on a strategy of reaching those with influence this would lead to God raising up a  generation of church leaders who would ensure that the Gospel went out. Back in the first part of the 20th Century the focus was on reaching public school boys through summer camps targeted at the elite who were expected to go on to Oxbridge and from there to be politicians, captains of Industry, vicars and bishops. The positive aspect to this is that through such camps men like John Stott, Dick Lucas, David Watson, Nicky Gumbel and our current Archbishop of Canterbury were discipled. The problem was that the church was in effect trusting in a trickle down effect where the gospel would eventually filter down to the masses.

We often associate “Trickle Down Effect” with economics. This is  the concept that if the wealthy are free to get wealthier then there will be a trickle down of that wealth to the middle and working classes so all benefit. This means if you cut taxes at the top, then eventually all will eventually benefit. The approach is particularly associated with Thatcherite and Blairite economics.

The fascinating thing is that when you look at the policies of those associated with trickle down, what they practiced didn’t really seem to suggest they really believed in the theory. Now, you may not like their particular political tribes or agree with their policies and you may be suspicious of their motives. However, whether they were right and wrong, they certainly weren’t trickle down practitioners.

Margaret Thatcher’s government took steps to enable Council Estate tenants to buy their own homes and the general public to own and, often sell at great profit, shares in large companies. It also cut income tax at the bottom as well as the upper end. In other words, those were attempts at redistribution  of wealth directly to people without them having to wait for it to trickle down.

Similarly, Tony Blair, although presenting his government as a friend of business and the rich oversaw an administration that used tax credits to benefit working families. Thatcher and Blair were followed by the Coalition Government and a massive increase of the income tax threshold. The consequence of this is to reduce the income tax bill of many significantly whilst taking others completely out of the tax system.

Whether these policies were effective is debatable. My point is that their intent displayed an impatience with trickle down. These governments were not waiting for the rich to pass on their wealth and for the benefits of their success to trickle down. These governments were prepared to intervene. The argument was about what type of intervention would be most effective.

What about a trickle down gospel? Well, just as political and economic radicals rejected trickle down economics, we see that visionaries in the church have rarely accepted the mission version. William Carey got this when he called the church to mission and headed off for India. He could not wait for the Gospel to trickle out around the world. He went. Similarly, Hudson Taylor was not content to wait for the Gospel to trickle inland from the coast and ports of China but set up China Inland Mission and headed inland with the good news. Of course they were following in the footsteps of Paul, who was not content to wait for the Gospel to trickle out from Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus and Rome but pioneered the way heading into unreached territories and setting his sights on Spain.

I believe that when it comes to our estates and inner cities, we cannot wait for the trickle down either. If we desire to see churches full of people from different backgrounds, different classes, cultures, ethnicities then we too need to go to the unreached places where the Gospel is not being heard. I have of course focused primarily on class and education here but what I say also applies tor ace as well. We have to confess that we have failed to see the Gospel shared with muslim background immigrants, that primarily our churches are white and whilst there are many believers from afro-carribean and mainland African backgrounds, our churches are often segregated by colour.

A personal desire

Our passions often reflect our own backgrounds and are caught not taught. I grew up in South Bradford, a predominantly working class area. I would not class myself as working class, my dad was degree educated and worked in a professional sector. However, he was the first in his family to go to University, he grew up on a council estate in Derby. My great grandparents were from Italian immigrant stock working in the east end of London, family records show that they signed marriage certificates with a cross suggesting illiteracy. We went to an inner city church that had started life as a mission hall intended to reach the down and outs in a notoriously rough area. As Chester intimates in his reasons listed above, many of those reached had gone on to sort their lives out giving up drink and gambling so that they became prosperous. I attend a comprehensive school on the estate rubbing shoulders with council estate lads and Pakistani background Muslims. I grew up loving the city and desiring to see places like Bradford, Leeds, Sheffield and Birmingham reached with the Gospel.

That’s what brought us to the West Midlands to Sandwell, a borough on the edge of the Black Country. It’s an area that often features on lists of indicators for social and economic deprivation. The church building is located in an increasingly multicultural area. We share our little bit of the High Street with Kurdish barbers, Iranian tailors, African grocery shops and halal butchers. There are also little clusters of hostels for immigrants waiting decisions and men fresh out of prison. At the same time there are little pockets of prosperity with some desirable areas especially the closer you get to the officially ‘posher’ Harborne.

Sarah and I bought a house on the local council estate. It is not one of the roughest estates. In fact a lot of people would consider it a nice area. However, it is still a council estate and that means it carries its own identity. Sadly one particular part of that identity is the absence of Gospel witness. Churches border the estate and there’s one reasonably active charismatic Baptist church on the next little estate along but this has not translated into gospel contact where we are. We have during our time here worked to build up neighbourly friendships as well as some planned door to door work.

It is my personal desire to see lots of thriving gospel communities on estates like ours and in inner city areas not just in the West Midlands but across the country and that’s what this series of articles is about.

Stepping In

The point is this. Unless, people are willing to go to our estates and inner cities to share the good news, then how will people hear the Gospel. If the church is majority, white, middle class, then that means for many (if not most of us) it will in effect require a form of cross cultural mission.


[1] Chester, Unreached, 9.

[2] Chester, Unreached, 10.

[3] https://www.ucas.com/corporate/news-and-key-documents/news/largest-ever-proportion-uks-18-year-olds-entered-higher-education-2017-ucas-data-reveals accessed 20/06/2018

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2013/jun/04/higher-education-participation-data-analysis accessed 20/6/2018.

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2013/jun/04/higher-education-participation-data-analysis accessed 20/6/2018.

[6] Chester, Unreached,10.

[7] Chester, Unreached, 11.

[8] Chester, Unreached,12.

[9] Chester, Unreached,12.

[10] Chester, Unreached,13.

[11] Chester, Unreached,13.

[12] Chester, Unreached,13.

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