Mission in Urban Priority Areas (personal reflection)

I am tired after a hard week in work, it has been frustrating checking the fine details of papers to be submitted to journals and by 5:30 p.m. I am exhausted. All I really want to do is go home to my warm flat and relax with a glass of wine and a book but I need to shop for the weekend still, so that I can spend tomorrow working on my thesis.

So I set out and head to the supermarket. In doing so I walk down a major road, with ice still on the pavement from the snowfall about a week ago, past a few equally weary workers who trudge up the hill to where they live. By doing this I walk through a small area of with quite a high level of social deprivation. However although there are lights on in my home church, I see people come out of car park carrying large black cases which have the outline of brass instruments. there is Samba drums coming from the local community centre, but when passing the high-rise flats not a single creature stirs, not even the overfed pigeons. Nearby is the old Methodist Church that the Jesus Army have taken over and are redeveloping as a Jesus Centre.

On the underpass to the supermarket sits Mike, he has his battered blue parker hunched around his thin body, his black eyes sharp in his thin face, and before him sits his cap, waiting for any spare change the straggling passers by might put in. I stop and ask if he is getting on and if he wants anything to eat. In doing so I learn he is seven quid short of his B&B money for the night having ‘slept’ rough the previous night.

As I go to buy him his egg sandwich and a chocolate milk shake I ponder what to do. It is clear to me that tonight of all nights nobody should be sleeping rough. I am not sure that ringing emergency accommodation has any point even if I knew the number, which I don’t. I know Mike is in contact with the authorities at least for the last six months. I also have never seen him clearly drunk or under the influence, I know he is ex-services and he smokes. I also know that most of the places I could send him during the day (or better still go with him to) are shut. In the end I give him the £7, he offers to repay, I reject saying that he should do something for himself with any extra.

It takes another eight months, a trip to hospital with serious illness before Mike is housed. His first plan on being housed was to go and help at local charity. Now I know I did not fix anything, I maybe gave Mike a bit more comfortable existence for twenty four hours but that is it. I may even have allowed him to get drugs that were the cause of his homelessness in the first place. I don’t know. I do know that one of the problems of trying to help people like Mike, and there are plenty, different stories but similar difficult circumstances, is the fact that they live chaotic lives.

Expect them at church dressed in clean clothes at 11:00 a.m. on Sunday, and then to behave politely is just not reasonable. I am afraid the chance of getting them to a church is negligible. Mike was invited at least three or four times including people willing to walk in with him, to a community breakfast at my church less than half a mile away, he never came let alone to Sunday worship with many middle class people.

The problem is that in many ways church has to be twenty-four seven in these communities, it is no good expecting them to come when church is open, church needs to be open when they come. What is more they often need more support and effort at least initially than your average middle class person. In order to even start to comprehend the faith they will need a small affirmative accounting community. A place where they are helped to tackle the chaotic forces that rule their lives.

Yet I know equally the high cost of trying to do such work. I have lost count/track of the cases of burn out when people have tried. These were people of faith, why else would they do it. Even to live your life in close proximity to these people (by that I do not live in the area, I have done that for years and it can be done with very little contact, but actually living so you shop at their shops, socialise where they socialise) is extremely draining work.You are faced with an overwhelming need that could drain your spirit and your finances very single day.

I have come too a conclusion that really only two groups have the ability to deal with such a challenge. On the one hand there are the Roman Catholic orders who specialise in living alongside the marginalised. They manage to do it, partly because they have systems that watch peoples reserves, because quite often the brothers and sisters who do this have as much money as those they help (i.e. none) and because you normally do this as a community.

The second group are from the other end of the spectrum and are groups like the Jesus Army, again the do it by living in community, actually by quite strong discipleship and again by having a communal rather than an individual purse. The difference is that people from the area can join the Jesus Army where as the Roman Catholic brothers and sisters would expect people to join the local RC church and are not looking for others to have a vocation to their order. In some ways this makes the Jesus Army more vulnerable to the stresses of the people around them.

Which of the two is best?

Well the Roman Catholic has the advantage of not expecting people who want to be involved locally to make the commitment the brothers and sisters have made. The supply of people for the presence is not from the locality and what they want is to create a worshipping community around them that will be part of the Roman Catholic Church. The problem is that as soon as you start to help people in these very dire circumstances in a way that really does challenge the chaos, then they normally start rising up the social ladder and quite often end up moving out of the area. So you have an continual mission situation with the need for constant support.

With the Jesus Army approach you actually do develop a local community. There are people from the neighbourhood and they tend to stay because the amount they have invested in the Jesus Army, i.e. housing, job and friendship means that leaving is very difficult. What should the Jesus Army do for people who want to leave. They may well have come in with nothing, been given shelter and then experience of employment by the Jesus Army. If that person leaves and the Jesus Army gives them nothing then that person is destitute again and open to fresh forces of chaos. However given the amount of support the Jesus Army gives such people why should it be expected to support them still when they no longer want to belong?

It seems to me both are flawed but both work better in these circumstances than standard church model as practised by many churches in this country. Getting the balance right, for there to be a church which really is open to the community will always be extremely tough.

Church poem

I write poems as a way to be creative, normally my poems try to take you into something, this one doesn’t it is polemical. Perhaps it is worth saying that this poem is actually arguing with those that claim that church is only any use because it gives you the chance to go to heaved.

What use is this institution
kept alive by its few elderly followers
who recite ancient texts,
sing communally
and perform odd ceremonies?


you want to live
and by that I don’t mean
to keep breathing
or to seek your own survival

but rather
to open to the possibility
that you are not
the flotsam or jetsam
of the gene pool
but part of a connected whole
where other lives touch yours
and yours theirs
and to chance by so doing
that you may find reflected in the pool
the image of God.

Older Generation and the Church

This was a mini rant I was giving to my parents and thought it was perhaps worthy of a blog post.

Lets be clear, there are certain things that I don’t want to hear from the older generation. Firstly I don’t want to hear them grumbling about the mess the church has got into. Not because the church is not in a mess, but because its a method of seeking to make other people (i.e. the younger people) responsible for getting the church out of the mess. Lets start with facts, the church did not get into this situation overnight, it has taken decades to get into it, and in each preceding decade it would have been easier to rectify than it is now. The people responsible for things in previous decades are now older people. So the grumbling is asking others to get you out of your mess.

Secondly I don’t want excuses not to engage with the younger generation. One of the things that has happened is a disconnect between the Church and the vast number of younger people. It started before 1970s, as I can remember sitting in school in the late 1970s and finding myself the only person familiar with the Easter story amongst my class mates in high school (I hope it was Easter, it may have been Christmas). They already did not know the grand narratives of the Christian gospel. That gap is partly your making, help us bridge it.

Please don’t think you can pass this onto us. What you tried to do then obviously wasn’t enough because it did not halt it. This means there are fewer of my generation in church than of yours, in case you had not noticed it. Expecting us to make the effort to connect with those younger and provide a chaplaincy service for you that allows you to stay within your comfort zone ain’t fair. I suspect our priorities have to be to get the gospel out to those who are younger than us. So yes things are going to be more uncomfortable for you. Believe it or not, its not half as uncomfortable as it is for us.

Now I am really not interested in blame, blame does not solve anything but I am interested in getting you on board, realising that you have a role to play (your retirement from church is cancelled just as mine from work is).

What is more it means change, its not the church kids we need to connect with or keep. I am sorry but we have consistently failed to find a way to keep them through college, when grants came in in the 1960s we should have started looking for new ways to connect. Chaplaincy is often under funded and does not connect back to the local congregation.

It is the secular 20 to 30 years olds who are just setting up a home in the area. How do we reach them? I don’t know, but we have to try experimenting to find a way.

That of course means our resources are directed elsewhere, not to keeping the body of the church functioning as it is, but on trying to develop relationships with people , people who are distinctly different from most of us in their attitudes and ideas. People who are a lot younger and therefore a lot more technologically au fait.

So if you are up for the challenge, welcome to the team, we need all the hands we can get, no matter how weak and full of arthritis they are. If you are not, then I am sorry, but we have more important things to do and at least you can stop grumbling.

Calvinist Church Finances

Yes John Calvin did say something about church finances. He said 25% should go on acts of charity and 25% on mission, I think it was also 25% on ministry and 25% on upkeep. Doesn’t sound like any church finances I have ever seen!

Okay so in Geneva the council kept up the buildings. So how about 20% on Ministry, 20% buildings, 20% upkeep, 20% on acts of charity and 20% on mission. Sounds simple doesn’t it, but I will bet now that a church that did that would look very different to any church around today!

Sometimes others say it better

Two things I have come across say things I am thinking better than I ever could. An interview with Malcolm King when he was warden on Iona Abbey which talks of how renewal might just come out of building community.

Secondly there is this blog article from the Alban Institutes on why churches need to identifying their primary and secondary customers. It simply points out that the church has primary customers who are not yet part of the church. In other words congregations wrongly define who their primary customers are by excluding a very large number. In fact if the church is to survive then it is dependent on people who are not yet members.

Overfished mission

This is a guess but I think there is at least some historical evidence behind it. The Church lives by mission. That is if it is to survive it can only do so by the act of people who are not yet its members!

Historically the church has had a fairly broad understanding of mission. Yes it ran evangelistic campaigns but these ran side by side with social groups and welfare provision. It clothed the naked as well as preached the good news. A church was a multifaceted organisation.

Then the church realised and I think around the 1950s, that certain actions brought in more members than others. So it argued that concentrating on these were efficiency. You did not need all the suprastructure of the other mission activities nor the random pastoral visiting, nor the social chit chat with friends. What you needed to do to grow was concentrate your resources on the receptive. Social outreach could be just for the sake of helping others it was not part of the churches central mission. A very good way to dishearten the volunteers.

Lets take the old Sunday Afternoon Sunday School. Well yes that was largely child minding so the parents could have sex without the kids around or go down the pub. So we concentrated on the Sunday morning Sunday School for church children which was far more productive in terms of immediate numbers. Except that now the children end up down the pub with the adults, or some other activity (e.g. junior football and rugby clubs often meet on a Sunday). So the kids instead of learning about Christianity, learn sport or go to pubs with their parents. That means they don’t gain the basic language in which the church puts the gospel. So we are talking to people now who speak another language. Children don’t know the Christian stories any more, this is a cultural and an evangelistic loss to the church.

The problem is that many of the other less effective programmes actually created the receptive demographic. The result of not cultivating them made people feel the church was “hypocritical” only interested in looking after those who were interested in it. The church was cutting what did not suit it and not necessarily what people around wanted the church to cut.

What is more the apparent success rate of some began to make the people in the churches began to feel inadequate in just doing the ordinary things that had supported people through generations. They felt no longer able to talk about their faith because they weren’t as good as Billy Graham. Not realising that unless they talked Billy Graham could not reach their friends.

Basically the church got into harvesting and forgot to plant.

To change metaphors for the last fifty years or more, we have fished in a non-replenishing pool. The stock is almost gone and we have not taken care to see it is replenished. In other words the Church has over fished.

This is bad news because the catches are meagre now, and the only way that the catches are going to improve is actually to put resources into replenishing the stock. To do that we have to take effort away from the catching and reinvest it in all the things we gave up fifty years ago. Yes that means social outreach, yes that means social activities for people around the buildings and yes that actually means putting their desires higher on our priority list. Only there are not as many people to fish and we are not as fit as we were fifty years ago.

The good news is that there is the wider sea, the bad news is our boat is less sea worthy than it was because we have not had to keep it up to standards for the last fifty years.

A generous church?

I am beginning to think that church finances will only really be sorted when we stop talking about how to save money and start talking about how to handle money, not just as individuals but as institution. Let me be clear, I am not in favour of wasteful spending, but cheapest ain’t always best.

Let me start with some quotes:
2 Samuel 24:24
But the king said to Araunah, “No, but I will buy it from you for a price. I will not offer burnt offerings to the LORD my God that cost me nothing.” So David bought the threshing floor and the oxen for fifty shekels of silver

1 Timothy 6:17-19 (English Standard Version)

As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.

Psalm 112:4-6 (English Standard Version)

Light dawns in the darkness for the upright;
he is gracious, merciful, and righteous.
It is well with the man who deals generously and lends;
who conducts his affairs with justice.
For the righteous will never be moved;
he will be remembered forever.

What do we see?
That the giving of bits that cost us nothing that are easy, is not the way that God approves. Counting the pennies and making sure everything is done as cheaply as possible is also not the best way. What we need to do is to get people to think what the church could do if it wasn’t watching the pennies so closely.

Basically as the church is at present it is strapped for money for mission. The two things that take priority on spending are ministry and buildings. A healthy congregation should be spending that again on social outreach and mission, according to John Calvin. That shows the deficit in many congregations and it shows where our priorities are. How do we change our priorities and how do we finance the mission of the church?

Firstly we need to consider how we give. There is a joke out there about tithing:

A systmem of raising money that demonstrates that the average member of the congregation is living on twenty ponds a week!

Tithing is a system that is a flat rate tax. Lets allow people to use take home pay especially as the chancellor gives back basic tax. Then for a Christian that is the money that God has given you to live on. The person with first claim on it is not you but God. Tithing is therefore a sign that it belongs to God. The URCs suggestion that half the tithe should go to other charities and half the tithe to the Church seems a decent enough suggestion. However then you have only done the minimum, what you give beynond that is really what makes you generous.

I fully accept some people struggle to make ends meet as it is. Some of these members the church probably should help by teaching them budgetting skills. others are genuinely financially short and should not be expected to pay a tithe, in fact the church should be giving to them. However this should be more than compensated for by the extra giving of those who are “rich” and by rich I don’t mean the super rich I mean anyone who would class themselves as middle class due to income.

I also happen to believe that a congregation should tithe as well and give 10% of its income to situations where the Church is struggling to make ends meet. I don’t care whether this is overseas or places of mission within the UK. This should come out before we pay Mam or for buildings. In other words the first call on our finances is the church catholic in the broadest sense.

When we start to look as our money as God given rather than ours, then there should come a different attitude of heart to what we do.

All the church is called to do is to remain faithful

I have heard this several times. It sounds good even to me and if properly understood it is true but it is rarely understood. It is interpreted to mean “All we need to do is to keep going as we are.” That is dangerous, a false lie, it is the modern equivalent of the servant who was given one talent and chose to bury it in the ground.

The key word is Faithful. Most people associate faithfulness with things staying the same, with remaining as we are, with keeping the status quo. However faithfulness is one of relationship, it is not faithful to suggest inside a relationship that both people must remain the same to keep things as they are, there must in any relationship be space to grow and change. Indeed faithfulness is altering a relationship to accept the change in another. What would we think of mother who kept her baby in nappies as that was a way to faithful or insisted in carrying the child everywhere no matter how big they grew.  I think we would feel that such a person was psychologically in trouble. We know in our relationships with other people that being faithful is actually a matter of continual change.

So it is with God, the call for the church to be faithful is not a call for the church to be static but a call for the church to adapt its relationship to God as its circumstances and understandings of God change. Fighting to keep things the same because that is being faithful, is a failure of relationship, and far from being faithful it is highly unfaithful.

Becoming a member of a congregation

Very few people wake up one Sunday morning and decide lets go to church today out of the blue. Even fewer then decide on a random congregation within ten miles of their home for that intial visit to a congregation, and very few decide at the first time of going that this is where they are going to settle. I am stating this as it is something we all really know but it is amazing how many congregations behave as if this is how people should behave.

What I want to do is to try and to get people first to re-imagine the way a person comes into membership.

I would suggest that there are two initial ways that a person may come into contact with a congregation. One is through a cultivated presence of the congregation, this covers everything from church noticeboards through social outreach to overt evangelism. What it does is make people think “Oh there is a church there!” The second thing is that the people either meet somebody or become aware that somebody they already know goes to that church. This tells them that “people like us go there”. Having been a church member I know there is nothing special about church members, but to the outsider I suspect they often feel like people from another planet. So for a person to consider going to a congregation they have to know something about the congregation and know somebody who belongs to the congregation.

There is however a third thing and that is there must be something that makes them think that Christianity is something they want to investigate or be involved in. If you want religious language some nudging of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes that can simply be the feeling that those people who go there are nice people to know I would like to get to know them better but for the most part, people who decide to come through the doors on a Sunday to worship will have some idea that Christianity maybe for them. It maybe that there needs to be a social life to the church that gives a space where people who do not yet have this inkling that Christianity may be for them but who value the friendships they are developing with members of the congregation.

Of course the Holy Spirit can and does use members, there possibly also needs to be encouragement for people to share about their faith with this group. Now I do not mean that members need sermons telling them they must share their faith or else, but that there needs to be some sort of reward for people who do share about their faith. Now I am not sure how this is built in, the old evangelical practice of testimony, at its best gave people a space to try this out that was relatively non-threatening, i.e. the congregation are hardly going to be put out because you talk about God, and often brought rewards in their standing with the congregation. Some congregations might find it useful to have something to give someone and others may find that perhaps faith sharing groups might be useful as a place to share ones faith and to learn to share with others. Actually a good one, is to develop the practice of speaking of the times you see someone else sharing their faith.

Then comes the actual day the person decides, there are going to be reasons why they choose your congregation and the reasons are not probably going to be the ones you’d theoretically liked. They liked a Sunday lie in and your service was the one that allowed them that, or the opposite effect, that your service was early enough that it did not mean that the whole of Sunday morning wasn’t spent at church. It could be that a member is prepared to meet them and walk in with them, or even that they felt that so many people went to your congregation they would not be conspicious. 

However thats just the first week. This is when a welcome matters and that people are given the tools not to feel that they stand out like a sore thumb amongst the regulars.  Sometimes that might mean someone to explain the service to them, sometimes that might mean the quality of the greeting and sometimes that actually might mean that they don’t want any attention at all.

Often people then think the journey is over.  They have a new member but there are a lot of people who will drop out of church going at this point on. What you need is a culture that openly looks to integrate people into the congregation. That gives positive messages not just to the people who come in, but also to the congregation about the people who come in. How many churches could tell you how many attendees have started coming regularly in the last six months unless it is none? Do you make a point of noticing that a person has stopped being an occasional visitor and has started becoming regular. Do you know if such a person is someone who has had previous connections with the Christian faith (maybe someone whose active involvement with a congregation has lapsed but now wants to take on a new commitment) or is looking at it for the first time? How do you celebrate their coming in as part of the fellowship? How do you make sure they are visible to long term members and welcomed? I am not suggesting at this point particularly that they need to come into membership, but it is time they went on the adherents role! and that in itself is worth celebrating.

Then from there to church membership! Again positive work both on involving and educating them into the ways of the congregation. Time to them to evaluate properly whether they do want to belong and time for them to think about what it means to belong.

If a person has been attending regularly for two years then the question really needs to change as to why they are not member and there are legitimate reasons why not. However do congregation even know when someone has been attending for two years or does it all go unnoticed?

I hope what I have outlined is a process that is lot more complex than what is normally supposed. I also hope I have made clear that this process needs a lot more than just straight evangelistic technique, that both the congregation and the individual need to work at making this a path that is celebrated and seen as bringing rewards. Congregations are quick to seize on either the difficulties of new people, who don’t do things the way they always have been done, aren’t as reliable, meaning haven’t been attending for as long or perhaps are demanding meaning needing care and attention. If they do recognise people then it is more likely to be as somebody who helps us keep things going rather than an individual who will enrich the life of the congregation.

The challenge is to make it possible for people to assemble a route into a congregation and when they appear to be doing so, to create ways to support them in so doing.

Why Congregations might not want growth.

It is always assumed that growth is good and that congregations are always in favour of growth. I have come to the conclusion that a congregation may well be cautious about growth and that the reasons they are cautious are powerful reasons.

Firstly the easiest one to get hold of. Growth implies change. It is highly unlikely that if you attract new people to join you that they will be exactly in the same mould as current members. Simply because if they were the chances are they would already be members. Now it is true that the people comining in will change to fit in with the congregation, but to a lesser extent the congregation will have to change to fit with the new members. However many people in the church look for to the church as a place of stability in a world of change. The idea that new people coming into the church will change how the congregation does things, is not attractive.

Secondly new people within the congregation are very likely to reset where the power exactly lies. This may be because they happen to relate more easily to one group of current members than another. This may be because they have specific skills, this maybe because they naturally do things differently and thus question the common place assumptions of the congregation. When power starts to move between people it is an uncomfortable experience.

Thirdly size makes a difference to how you can do things. A congregation that likes to do things together, to involve everyone and does not like to be separated up, is going to find it has it increases size to over one hundred it is harder and harder to do things that way. This is because humans do not sustain endless relationships but normally about 150. You simply have to work much harder to be tight knit sort of congregation if you have 150 members than you do if you have 50 members. I suspect congregations over 250 simply don’t function that way.

Fourthly outreach seems to me to entail a level of being open and vulnerable, that a congregation has to be open to rejection by people outside it, to being told it is not wanted and probably to having things not done how it would like them if it is truly to engage with people who are outside the church.