I was at a city-wide ministers event recently, I have been really struggling with my calling to the inner city, it is hard, everything takes time, you feel like you are making no progress, nothing changes quickly. Our church is based in the third most deprived area of the city, and would easily be the most, but for recent regeneration in housing, which means we still have no jobs, poor health issues, high crime rates, but nice houses to come home to (if people have gone out that day at all).
At the ministers conference, my area got mentioned a few times. It was pointed out the it was the area of the city where all the councillors are Labour, later we were told that if you drive from one part of the city to where we are, you lose a year of your life for every mile, we also saw a map of the city churches with two small dots in our area of 7,000 people, while the more affluent areas had lots of big dots.
There is a massive injustice in our city, and it is reflective of other cities I know of too, where the areas of highest deprivation are also the ones with lowest church attendance. Often the only expressions of church are small and struggling. How have we ended up with this?
Jesus was not born in a Palace in Jerusalem, but a stable in Bethlehem. Grew up in an area that “nothing good came from”. Spent his ministry with gluttons and drunkards. He spent time with the “crowds”, ordinary people, which annoyed the influential people that most people aspired to be with. He ate with sinners. His ministry was supported by women, he had no home, and very little money. Rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, was arrested as a criminal, died the death of a thief, outside the walls of the city, like a slave, while the few clothes he had were gambled away. He was buried in a borrowed tomb.
He said he came to preach good news to the poorest, he told his disciples not to aspire to the trappings of this world; money, power and influence. He taught them to be among the poor and to carry a cross; not to worry about what others worried about, but to trust in God.
Yet 2,000 years later we seem to have lost this downward mobility call. We have been caught up in the trappings of this world, and this is not just personal Christians, but churches. One large city church leader said to me, “I could not do what you do”; why not, I am not special?
I like Devonport, but not many people do, and certainly not Christians. They do not work here, very few live here and even less worship here. This confuses me, as I am fairly certain that if Jesus was to walk the streets of Plymouth, he would probably end up here, in the same way that when he was in Jerusalem he seemed to spend more time in Bethany than he did in the Temple (read all the Gospels again it will surprise you). What was so special about Bethany, not much, it was a leper colony two miles from the city centre, a town of outcasts where Jesus felt at home.
I wonder then if Jesus was to be found in Devonport, why his followers seem to not be found here? Part of it goes back to what that church leader said, this is a calling for certain people? The Edgy urban radicals who are prepared to go where the rest of the church are quite happy to avoid. But I don’t believe that for one second. I believe the call to the poor is not for specialists, but for the church as a whole, and if it isn’t, I wonder if we should stop calling the Christian churches at all?
My fear is that in ten years’ time churches like mine won’t exist. While Christians drive to the latest big fad church, they will drive past old church buildings, that have gone to wrack and ruin; past people who are desperate for some good news, some hope, but they won’t find it in those dead buildings anymore.