I’ve been scratching my head since getting back from China wondering why English churches feel so strange, and it’s finally come to me. English churches are inside out.


I don’t mean that the carpets and pictures are in the wrong place, I mean the focus of the church is in the wrong place. I’ll try and explain.
Chinese home churches tend to feel small and vulnerable. Members are evangelists, trying to share the good news with as many people as possible. The church minister is often only a little better trained than the congregation and sees their main role to be encourager and cheer leader for the troops.
In the UK on the other hand the church leader tends to be vastly better trained than the congregation. The leader has probably worked as a volunteer for a couple of years, then spent three years learning Hebrew, homiletics, and history. They may have spent a further three years as a curate/assistant so by the time they get to lead the church they are very much a priest.
The priest is not a cheer leader. They are a teacher, a guru showering wisdom upon the drones who work hard all week to pay the priest’s salary. As a congregation, we turn up on Sunday exhausted and slump into seats waiting the reviving words of the teacher. We hope that there will also be a junior priest looking after our kids.
The junior priest (youth worker) may well be given free accommodation and a salary of £20,000 per year to look after 10 teenagers. The cost per teenager might be as high as £3000 per kid per year. The church’s expenditure on the other 30,000 kids who live in the area is negligible.
In this model of church we have priests providing services tailored to a few paying customers, whilst the 92% who never go to church remain largely untouched.
Church has become a service centre for busy Christians. It has become inward looking, centred around a single priest. Instead of employing a youth worker to train the kids to evangelise the district, we have a youth worker filling in the gaps that busy Christian parents have left in parenting our kids.  Instead of reaching out to the local council estate we say that “we don’t feel moved by the Spirit” to reach that group and ignore them with our leafleting for Christmas Carol Services.

I’ve talked to some of these priestly church leaders about trying to remedy the situation, “What about the Polish, the elderly, the council estate kids close to our church?”
The answer is a look of despair. “Brother”, they say, “I’d like to do more, but I am short staffed, I need to prioritise my preaching preparation time, and then I’ve got two couples on the edge of a marriage break up. On top of that my senior elder is annoyed that his son isn’t getting enough attention from our youth worker, and eight of my best, most able members have just left to join a church plant in Suburbiton. How am I meant to start a new ministry to the elderly, or the Polish, or the council estates, when I can’t even look after my own flock? Brother, you are weighing me down with burdens. Surely we pay London City Mission to look after the needy, so you look after that lot, and I’ll struggle on with caring for my congregation.”
It’s hard to argue with the poor Church minister so I’m going to let Paul do it. In his letter to the Ephesians chapte 4, Paul says this,

“11 And he himself gave some as apostles and some as prophets and some as evangelists and some as pastors and teachers 12 for the equipping of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for building up the body of Christ”

He didn’t say, “and he gave the body of Christ to pay for the important ministry workers”.

He didn’t say “and he gave pastors and teachers for the work of the ministry and to keep an eye on the body of Christ”.

He said that the church leaders are to be equippers, cheer leaders, encouragers to get the Church doing all the ministry.

The “priest” is the worst person to be doing all the ministry.  They haven’t worked in the real world for years.  The people who are out in the real world need to be doing the ministry.

The church is inside out. Rather than having an inward looking church huddled around a priest for survival, we need an outward looking church, reaching out to the lost, and our pastors and teachers need to be our equippers, our mobilisers. Instead of employing young pastors to keep our kids on the straight and narrow, we need to employ evangelists to train the kids to reach out into the community. The best way to deal with young doubters is to turn them into young evangelists.  When one of our church’s young people thinks up the idea of starting a “football ministry” for kids on the council estate the church minister shouldn’t be rolling their eyes to the sky with thoughts of the effort, but encouraging them and getting a couple of Dads engaged in the project.  When the students want to get involved with ministry to the homeless, it should be encouraged, and telephone numbers provided for the Christian shelter where church members regularly volunteer and run Bible studies.  When the mums group wants to start an outreach to the elderly widows in the community it should be helped with offers of the church premises and a rota for providing the less mobile a lift to church on Sunday.  The minister shouldn’t be running any of these ministries, but they should be engaging with their church members, getting them to do what they are good at, and encouraging them from scripture to reach out with both Christian love and the Gospel that Jesus Christ is our risen Lord.

We need to turn our church’s back inside out.  One way is to plant a new church which is tiny and vulnerable like the Chinese church.  Another is to challenge our idols that leave us so terribly “time poor”.  That is the subject of another blog

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One of the many “culture shock” moments for me returning from China is the tribal nature of the church in London.  One of the joys of living and working in Beijing is that although there are many limits on Christian meetings, the foreign believers are forced to mingle together at BICF, Beijing International Christian Fellowship.  This means that I have spent the last 9 years not only working with Chinese friends in the house churches and state sponsored churches, I have also had the joy of fellowship with friends from the Assemblies of God, Old German Baptist, Southern Baptist, Presbyterian, Acts 29, Charismatic, Conservative, Korean, African, Pacific Island, Russian, Singaporean, European, American, Latin American church groupings (to name but a few).  Here in London most Christians keep to our own cliques.  This is a pity because it displays  disunity when we should be distinctive to the world because of our love for one another.  We make the problem worse by spending our time criticising every other group and worrying whether anyone outside our grouping is really a Christian.  The entire African church is sometimes written off as “prosperity gospel”, the charismatics are too “feeling orientated”, the conservatives are “quenching the Spirit”, the Koreans are “workaholics”, etc.

In Ephesians 3, Paul explains that he has been given a ministry to Gentiles so that the church will display to the all the “manifold wisdom of God” Eph 3:10.  This word manifold, πολυποίκιλος means multi-faceted, diverse, many sided.  The context , Paul’s discussion of his mission to the Gentiles, suggests a sense that God’s church displays the diverse, muti-coloured nature of his plan for the world. We fail to display this πολυποίκιλος beauty when we remain in our church ghettos. Worse, we fail to show the distinctive Christ-like love for which the church should be famous. Christ’s love is sacrificial, steadfast, culture-crossing. Clique love is self-serving, fickle, and aimed at people similar to ourselves. Even the businessmen at the golf club know how to invite golfing friends over for dinner and drinks. If the extent of our fellowship is inviting people just like ourselves over for dinner and drinks to extend our social network then we are not showing Christ-like love, we are showing world-like love. Finally clique churches will tend to be more faddish, and less creative. Each visit from China to the UK I have spotted new church fads because we are all reading the same recommended books and attending the same annual conferences. Diverse congregations have a much wider group of opinion sources.  They will tend to have more creative conflict and may even break apart under the weight of that conflict, but they will benefit from having less “groupthink” and more innovative solutions to long standing problems.
So how can we learn to be more inclusive without watering down our doctrinal statements or distinctive values?
One way is to reach out into the diversity of the community in which we find ourselves. South Asian origin kids make up something like 15% of London’s schools. London’s Christians need to be making friendships across those cultural boundaries at the school gate.  Polish immigrants arrived in 2004 and Romanians are arriving as I write.  Our churches need to be reaching out to these people groups for our good as well as theirs.
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Fast growing churches tend to be made up of young graduates. Young people in the church need to be encouraged to visit and befriend the elderly in their neighbourhood.
Many Christians (especially those reading this blog) will be getting new ideas and forging connections online. We need to make a conscious effort to listen to voices outside our usual cliques and groupings and make connections with people from different racial, economic, and age backgrounds.

A church which is welcoming to a diverse community will have diversity in its leadership.  People tend to attend a church where the people down the front of the church look a bit like themselves.  Planting a church of 100 young middle class graduates onto a housing estate is a noble thing to do, but it is likely to be more effective to start a church with a dozen local people and only half a dozen of the graduates, and then encourage the local people to take responsibility for the singing, praying, and welcoming.  A big, “white”, Anglican city centre church on the other hand will benefit by adding leaders from Asian or African backgrounds to the leadership teams.
Making friends cross-culturally can be a source of great joy.  One of the wonderful aspects of living in a city like London is that I can have Korean, Indian, Nigerian, young, old, rich, poor friends and we can learn from eachother’s diverse experiences.  We need to be ready to widen the cultural makeup of our network of Christian friends if we want to display the multicoloured beauty of God’s Church.  It is not so hard, but it requires patient, humble, sacrificial love.  It is the Holy Spirit that pours this love into our heart, and that is why Christians love is distinctive.  As we pray for a deeper love for our neighbours of all backgrounds we shouldn’t be surprised when we have opportunities to love the elderly, the foreign, the poor, the marginalised.  They are all around us but we haven’t been looking.

Here is an exercise for you. Have a look at the people you follow on Facebook or Twitter. Count up 100 and see how many of them are from a different economic, racial, age background. If less than 20% are different from you then you need to ask if you are engaging with society or hiding in your clique.
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I recently gave a talk to Bible scholars to encourage involvement in gospel outreach to the poor, elderly, and marginalised with London City Mission. We got onto the topic of “mercy ministries” and it was suggested that the “Good is the enemy of the best”, and perhaps we should be spending more time preparing sermons and less time organising foodbanks. My response was that we need to be “both and” Christians who obey the 2 GCs. We need to obey the Great Commission to preach the good news & make disciples, and we need to obey the Great Commandment to love God & love our neighbour. We then got onto the question of who we should be loving. “Surely the bulk of our love should be reserved for our fellow Christians?” This led to the  question, “So who exactly is my neighbour?”, at which point I told a story.

An African student was walking along Oxford Street, after his fellowship group, on his way to his hall of residence. As he walked he was brutally assaulted. His wallet and phone were stolen, he was knifed and left half dead in a shop doorway.
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Now by coincidence a vicar was walking along the road that night. He saw the body in the doorway and felt troubled but he had a sermon to write. “I need to give priority to the ministry of the word, I mustn’t be distracted by the needs of every tramp on the street”, he thought as he passed by on the other side of the road.
By further coincidence a Bible study leader was also walking down the road. “I need to look after the needs of my study group, I don’t have time to meet the needs of the world”, he thought as he walked past quickly.
A church member was also walking along the road on the way to a late night sale at Selfridge’s. He saw blood tricking from the body and thought, “Oh my goodness those awful black gangs have brought their knife crime to the heart of London” as he jumped in a taxi to to the safety of home.
Finally a Romanian gypsy spotted the body. He quickly applied pressure to the wound and did emergency first aid. He called an ambulance and accompanied the body to the hospital. There was confusion at the hospital about whether the injured man was eligible for free NHS treatment so the Romanian handed over his bank card and said, “please charge all of his treatment to me, I’ll be back tomorrow and I’ll ask my cousin for extra money if it is needed”.

After telling the story I asked the students, “Which one of these acted as a good neighbour to the African student?”.
“The Romanian gypsy”, was the unanimous opinion.
“Well we must go and do likewise”.

When we start debating the, “Who is it that I need to love?” question we are falling into the trap of the Pharisees.  The question should never be, “How few people can I love?”  Jesus made it clear that  narrow categories need to be exploded.  We are to love across cross-cultural boundaries.  We are to love the Samaritan.  We are to love even our enemy.  The Bible shows us that Christians are not only to love fellow Christians (of course we must especially love them), but we are to love the poor, the needy, the elderly, and the foreigner in our midst. (Zech 7).  The New Testament Church also didn’t just leave this love to the goodwill of individual believers.  When brothers and sisters in Jerusalem suffered a famine the entire church network across the Middle East pulled together in a fund raising plan to support fellow believers (2 Cor 9).

This blog is not an exhaustive discussion of the risks and benefits of engaging in mercy ministry.  There are many more issues to discuss; rice bowl Christianity, manipulation of needy people, the unconditionally of love, creation of a dependence culture,… to name but a few.  I want to explode the myth that loving the needy is a competitor of the work of preaching the good news to the lost.  To be unloving is to sub-Christian, and as mature believers we are called to follow the full counsel of God, 100% Christians not sub-Christians.  We are called to love the needy, to bind up the wounds of the broken hearted.  We are called to make disciples of all nations, and we are called to teach the full counsel of God.  In God’s economy this is not an either/or decision.  The good is not the enemy of the best.  Wise expenditure on reaching out with love to the needy does not push out expenditure on gospel ministry.  Our Father ‘has the cattle on a thousand hills’. He has plenty of time and resources to reach out with love to the elderly widow living next door and also preach the Word of God to the ends of the Earth.  As we fall to our knees faced with the needs of a lost world we will be equipped with what we need to both support the needs of our famine stricken brothers and sisters in the church of Antioch and the resources to plant new churches on the council estates of Dagenham.  We have a big God.  He will achieve big plans.
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