On idols families and estates

Mez McConnell has written this on people considering Gospel ministry on estates – or as they are called in Scotland “schemes.” There’s some helpful truth about the cost of discipleship and mission in Mez’s article. I hope he won’t mind though if I just push back a little on a couple of points.

First of all, Mez quotes Jesus from Luke 9:55-62 and argues from there that we have to remember that Christ is always more important than our families, including our children. His advice:

Deal with it. Or walk away.

Mez McConnell, 20 Schemes

I wonder though how helpful that is. To be sure, a bit of bluntness is needed at times and the point that Christ is more important is so obviously true in practice but not always something we get in practice. I suspect that the bluntness is really reserved here for those who um and ah about the work but never move beyond that.

When it comes to concern for our families in general, whilst there can be idolatry (ask my friend the youth worker about what happens to his Bible study group when it’s 11 plus and GCSE time), there are also plenty of people struggling with the various challenges of family life, worrying about their kids growing up in the Lord and at times hanging on with a thread that I wouldn’t want them to hear “deal with it” and I’m sure Mez wouldn’t either.

And there is a point here. I’m not sure that the specific text is as helpful to the situation as suggested. Perhaps that’s why we could have done with the exegesis.  There are two reasons for this. The first is that Jesus’ challenge here is not to people considering a specific mission calling but the general call to follow him. Yes Christ comes first, not our family. However, the choice here is not between Christ and an idol but between one way of serving Christ and making disciples and another way.

You see, there is the point. We are positively called to serve Christ by making disciples and part of that call to make disciples includes our children. It’s why, before we look at someone as a potential elder that we ask how they are doing with their family. It is spiritually good that parents consider the long term well-being of their children. And, yes, that might well mean that a prior commitment to one aspect of good and wholesome Gospel work precludes us from committing to another. That is okay. Indeed, whilst Mez uses the example of missionaries going abroad and burying their children, that may well not have been the right call for them. In the early church we see people forced by God to scatter, they have no choice to move with the Gospel but then we also have people who serve by being sent on mission and this includes ensuring that provision is made for Peter’s family circumstances but it also includes Paul recognising that his status as a single man gave him opportunities not available to married family men. Indeed, I’m not sure that we do see examples of early church missionaries having to make decisions about what to do with the kids.

The point then is that if we are dealing with two options for ministry, both legitimate that we don’t put either on a pedestal. It’s possible to put estate work on such a pedestal too and when we do that, we create idols. Steve Kneale’s linked article points out that actually we can create this scary and heroic image of life on estates and in inner city areas but a lot of it’s just normal.  Indeed, it’s actually quite rare for middle class people to be able to move right into the most challenging, crime ridden, deprived bits of the estates. Often the reality is that to move onto an estate means that you buy a house  because you aren’t eligible for council property and if you did start renting social housing you’d be taking it away from those most in need.  So you would hardly be doing your witness any favours.  The reality is then that a lot of estate life is “normal.”  You get to live in a solidly built house with a reasonable garden and friendly neighbours who work or have worked in a range of types of jobs.  We forget that the universe isn’t divided into middle class suburbia and then crime ridden, graffiti marred, litter strewn, gang-war blitzed sink estates. There’s something we might call normal in between. It’s also worth saying that normal people need the Gospel too. Indeed, I wonder whether we need to remind ourselves that the reason for planting a church in an area is not because of its social deprivation but simply that people from all backgrounds need the Gospel.

Further, in the end I’m a bit wary of the motivation to go and live somewhere because we see it as heroic. If we think we are being heroes we may well struggle to fit in with people who just see those things as the unavoidable bits of normal life.

Which brings me to my challenge.  We need churches that reach all types of people. We need churches that reach working class and middle class communities, we need churches reaching into those deprived neighbourhoods. Sometimes a church will actually be reaching people from all backgrounds, sometimes it will be necessary to focus on one. It’s important that we don’t neglect one in favour of the other.

It’s also important then that we don’t put one on a pedestal so that we create an idol out of it. You see, the risk then is that we are not putting Christ first before our children, rather, we risk sacrificing our children on our idol’s altar. That is just as dangerous.

Before it sounds like I’m disagreeing with Mez and Steve too much and justifying the safe middle class option, some final thoughts.  Part of the problem is, as Steve alludes to that we don’t actually know what the idols and the sacrifices are.  To be clear, allowing your kids to get dragged into the drug and gang culture would be an example of that type of faulty sacrifice -and I think Mez makes clear that moving onto the estate doesn’t mean you do that. However, what we do risk is the assumption that we are making a sacrifice if we pull our children out of the world of 11 plus, tuition and Saturday morning dance and music classes. Well actually, that’s not the sacrifice. You aren’t risking what truly matters by forgoing those things by sending them to the local comp and letting them go and kick a football about on the rec every Saturday instead!  Indeed, what we might be assuming are necessary things for our children are in fact all the trappings of a lifestyle that we need to adopt to fit in with our chosen mission field.

So my take?  Enjoy the life God has given you, where you are. Seek to share the good news of Jesus with your neighbours, love your children, protect them, point them to Christ too. And, if God calls you to another country or another place in the UK, yes be ready to count the cost and to confirm whether you have any outstanding priorities or whether now is the right time and this is the right place to go.