I’ve been watching a few videos on youtube recently. They were not particuarly connected to each other, were from different theological and denominational backgrounds, and were talking generally about the mission context in the contemporary UK setting.
There has been a common thread that surprisingly, and sometimes even shockingly, come through. Commentators have brought up the middle-class satisfaction that pervades the majority of predominantly white evangelical churches. This is nothing new, I shouldn’t have been surprised as it’s an old story, but one which is becoming increasingly prominent, especially in our current climate. I’ll also say that some commentators didn’t spare their wrath much (I’m talking about you, Mez McConnell…you reminded me very much of the prophet Amos!).
The thrust of the emerging argument among these clips was that churches are settled, over-content so long as it goes their way, largely ignorant of the social conditions of those outside their economic equals in the community, less confident in the urgency of the gospel, and reticent to put anything they have at risk for anything, not least the gospel. Plenty of generalisations there, granted, but not without some truth if we’re bold enough to think about it. Needless to say, it was quite a striking theme. The question really is, has the evangelical church sold its soul to comfort?
Last week I attended the Christians Against Poverty (CAP) regional conference in London, given my own church’s recent decision to engaged in partnership with a debt centre in our area. There, it was wonderful to hear the testimony of pastors, CAP workers, and from debt-free clients about the impact of that ministry on peoples lives, and specifically the challenges the pastors have faced trying to re-shape their churches to be effective containers for messy lives of everyday people experiencing challenging life circumstances.
Both at the conference, and in hearing this theme arise from the videos, my mind rushes back to a thousand scenes in hundreds of lives where I’ve known ministry amongst ‘the last, the lost and the least’. And, to be honest, my finger doesn’t point anywhere else, although if I looked I could probably find some directions. Part of my own ministry covenant before God is to “to care for the poor, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, love the unlovable, and befriend those who have no friends.” But even for me, that has been largely relegated to the ‘safe distance’ of chairing the foodbank committee!
How, friends, will we escape from our safe ivory towers? It strikes me that we will have little success in following the transformative way of Jesus if we are locked and shackled by our own sense of self-preservation. It is very easy to do. And it isn’t always easy to get out or speak out.
To this very day, almost 20 years later, I remember the fierce backlash I received when I asked what the tens of thousands of pounds spent on many brass instruments, and the hundreds of thousands of pounds spent on posh cars in the car park of a church in one of the poorest set of postcodes in Glasgow possibly had to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ! I was young, brash and bold back then! ‘You haven’t been very sensitive to the context of the meeting’ one critic said. ‘I beg to differ’, I said, ‘have you ever spent more than half an hour walking the streets of this community?’ Well, I don’t think I got invited back into the pulpit! Gee….it was exciting back then! And maybe it was easier to say when I was poor myself and barely scaping by.
But as I’ve said, I’ve become the very same hypocrite. My personal investment and connection with those on the margins has rapidly decreased, my affluence has risen and my comfort has risen with it. I need not look at the speck in anyone’s eye when the log is in mine. Lent seems like a very good time to reassess one’s priorities when it comes to our relationship with those whom Jesus invested most of his time. Hmm!