Last week, Philip North, suffragan bishop of Burnley, made a typically challenging and provocative claim in an article in the Church Times: ‘We don’t need to bring Jesus to urban estates’. His central argument is that we have failed to engage with our urban areas because too often we have brought a packaged message from the outside as powerful visitors rather than discovering Jesus already there. I think Philip says some important things here—but I also think there are some important mistakes in his claims.
Philip begins by highlighting the challenge that we have in reaching urban areas:
There are, of course, exceptions to disprove the rule, but, generally, the more deprived the area served by a church, the smaller the size of the Sunday congregation. In estates parishes, for example, regular Sunday attendance in 2016 was less than 0.9 per cent of the population, compared with a national figure of 1.7 per cent.
He goes on to comment that ‘Nobody really seems to know the answer to the question’ of why urban churches are so small. I am not sure that is entirely true, as I think we have at least three pointers, relating to both the organisation of the C of E and changes in culture. First, it has been demonstrated that investment in stipendiary ministry leads to growth in congregations. The C of E has far more clergy per head of population in rural areas—and there is proportionately twice the attendance in those areas.
Secondly, changes in culture and particularly in family structures have affected urban areas much more than suburban or rural areas; the wealthy and powerful in the UK have for a long time advocated tolerance and freedom of structures of relationships, whilst largely being immune from those changes or their impact, whilst the collapse of the traditional family has devastated many urban areas. Marriage, it is said, is now primarily a middle- and upper-class pursuit. This has put urban culture at a greater distance from traditional Christian patterns of living, and widened the cultural communication gap between urban life and the church.
Thirdly, there is no doubt that much practice of Christian faith, particularly in the C of E, has accommodated itself to cultural assumptions about consumerism and individualised patterns of living, and that has blunted our ability to bring the gospel to other parts of our culture.
Philip goes on to question the assumptions that we make, observing that ‘Jesus centred his ministry on the poor’ and that ‘a Church run for the most part by relatively wealthy graduates’ is bound to fail in these contexts. I am not sure that these claims are convincing. Reading through Luke’s gospel this year, and commenting on the Sunday lectionary readings, I have been struck not so much by Jesus’ ministry centring on the poor, as Jesus engaging with rich and poor, central and marginal, leaders and ordinary people. To be sure, Luke mentions the poor, marginalised and the ‘sinners’ more emphatically than perhaps the other Synoptic gospels do—but he also mentions the wealthy, the religious and those committed to traditional piety more clearly than others. Luke’s point is that the poor are not excluded from the gospel by being poor (as many thought then, and we appear also to think today)—but that is because no-one is excluded.
And a few years ago, I read that one fifth of Oxford graduates end up working in the voluntary sector with charities; the Bullingdon Club and Parliament are not the only destinations for ‘wealthy’ graduates!
In fact, Philip’s next point emphasises some of the demands of ministry leadership. He rightly questions models of the atonement that are abstract, or merely self-affirming.
For some, that message is about atonement and the promise of eternal life: for example, the simple formula that “Jesus died for our sins.” For others, the message is broader and more upbeat: for example, “God loves us all unconditionally.” The trouble is, neither of these messages seem to be connecting with urban people because they simply do not relate to the needs and questions that they have.
Indeed—which is why those exercising spiritual leadership in these contexts need, for example, to understand the whole range of models of the atonement that we find in the New Testament, and being able to translate those into new contexts. If we are going to nurture a generation of pioneering, cross-cultural church planters, they need to understand more about theological tradition and the disciplines of theological translation, not less, than the previous generation!
I think it is at this point that Philip takes a wrong turn.
By virtue of the incarnation, Jesus is present in all things, in all places, and in every situation. The task of the evangelist is to draw him out and demonstrate him to be already present, so that people can find conscious relationship with the one who made them and longs to draw them home — and that can only be achieved by deep listening and profound understanding of people’s lives. A Church that thinks it knows all the answers will swiftly find that it knows none of them.
Firstly, that is precisely not what the incarnation means from a theological point of view. The incarnation does mean that God has, in the life and ministry of Jesus, participated in the full reality of human existence. But it means that, when ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us’ (John 1.14), he did so in a particular time and place, and we are dependent on those who witnessed this for our understanding of who and what he was. It is this ‘scandal of particularity’ that is central to Christian theology, and it is why hermeneutics—interpretation, translation—has always been central to Christian mission. As Eugene Peterson’s The Message puts it ‘He moved into our street’—but the problem is that the street he moved into was a dusty, first-century Jewish street, and mission involves understanding and engaging with what it now means for Jesus to move into a British, 21st-century urban street.
Secondly, that has a direct impact on the missional task. I think Philip is spot on in critiquing the historic power dynamic that there has been in mission—that those with the gospel come from the outside with competence and expertise, and deign to bestow these gifts on those less fortunate. The pattern of mission we find all through the New Testament is quite the opposite. In Luke 9 and 10 (and the parallels in the other gospels), Jesus sends the 12 and then the 72 out with no provision, but in weakness and vulnerability. As I noted earlier this year, mission is here seen as inherently risky; if there is a power relationship, then those sent are the ones without power, which seems to be the opposite of most recent history of mission. There is a certain recklessness in the task, since those sent do not plan for their own provision. (I am guessing this is what Philip is referring to when he notes: ‘Dr Justin Stratis, from Trinity College, Bristol, was especially zealous, arguing that, in our listening to estates residents, “We come as beggars seeking bread.”’)
But Jesus’ depiction of mission here also challenges Philip’s curious adoption of a Richard-Rohr-style ‘mission is just enlightening people to the Jesus who is already in them’ kind of approach.
You will find that the Good News is much better news than any simplified message that we think we can import. It is the rich new Kingdom life that we discover together as we find Jesus gloriously present in every aspect of our lives.
Jesus is clear, in Luke 9 and 10, that he is sending his followers to places that he has not yet visited and yet to which he desires to go. He sends them not only as his messengers, but as his very presence.
Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me (Matt 10.40).
In the eschatological parable of the sheep and the goats in Matt 25.31f, it is the hungry, thirsty, naked, stranger, sick and imprisoned who are the least of ‘these brothers [and sisters] of mine’, a term Jesus uses only and specifically for his disciples (see Matt 12.50)—and the ‘sheep’ are those who have unwittingly welcomed Jesus in their welcome of Jesus’ followers. If we take the presence of Jesus with us as we go, then it means that, in some important sense, the presence of Jesus does not go where we do not go. I am not suggesting here a Catholic-style doctrine of ‘there is no salvation outside the Church’ but simply pointing out the consequence of a Pauline theology of God’s people as the body of Christ.
Mission then becomes a kind of exchange. Jesus’ followers go to different places in poverty and vulnerability in relation to their physical and practical needs, but they go in spiritual power and strength, ready to proclaim the kingdom, drive out demons and heal the sick. What they lack in practical terms they receive from those they visit, and what they do have (the treasure of the kingdom) they offer in return. As they receive something from their hosts that they do not have, so they offer something to their hosts that their hosts do not yet have. Philip is right to critique our reliance on our own competence—but he is mistaken in thinking that we do not bring something, in the message of the gospel, that is actually currently lacking in many parts of our cities. We need to lay down our presumption that we come in competence and strength, bringing all the answers—but we also need to take up the confidence that, in the good news, we have by God’s grace treasure which others need.
But on one aspect of this we will agree: the need to listen as a primary task in the process of evangelism. Tim Keller, someone who has had a very effective ministry in an urban context, also emphasises this. A key reason why his ministry has flourished in the 25 years he has been in New York is his attitude to cultural engagement.
God was helpful to me in finding a way to communicate the gospel without compromising it, but connect it to aspirations and fears and baseline personal and cultural narratives. You find out whatever the culture or person is looking to for meaning, and you show that while it is a good thing, you’ve turned it into an idol and only in Jesus Christ will that aspiration ever be fulfilled. That’s basically how you preach.
I am not sure how much this conviction is rooted in a particular theology of the world and God’s relating to it, but put this way it sounds like a good strategy because it works. For Keller, this attentive listening is not just done in relation to culture, but also to in relation to individuals.
Everybody has got a story. If you’re able to inhabit that so well that [people] feel that you know their story better than they do, and then show in a compelling way how that story is only going to find resolution in Jesus, then they are going to find a compelling case for Christianity.
A recent Grove booklet, by another Tim, Tim Sumpter, explores this issue along similar lines. Tim coins the word ‘evangelistening’ as a way of describing the strategy not only of Jesus but also Paul and others in the New Testament:
Jesus models a person-centred style of evangelism which starts with individuals. He not only spoke words of truth, he also embodied practical compassion, resulting in his readiness to ignore long-established cultural conventions which would have prevented him from ever meeting most of the individuals listed above. He even made it easy for people to walk away without mocking them or disparaging them in any way (Mark 10.17–27; John 6.60–69). Here was a style of evangelism free from the pushy coerciveness which some evangelists have employed, hallmarked by compassion, care, dignity and the ability to listen.
After exploring ways that this can work out in practice for individuals and churches, he highlights its value:
Evangelistening, as an evolving process, is one small attempt to repaint evangelism according to the original colours of the New Testament. It is not a panacea and does not mean we have not made mistakes; we will have made many of those on the journey so far. But alongside those, this style of evangelism has produced fruit, both in giving some Christians confidence to live more evangelistically and in helping some individuals come to Christian faith for the first time.
I do hope and pray that the ‘Estates Evangelism’ project bears fruit, not for our sake but for the sake of those who have not yet heard the good news in a way that they can receive it. But we might need to listen to a whole range of people, including American Calvinists like Tim Keller, if we are going to get this right.
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