Over the last decade it has become increasingly fashionable to plant, graft, or resurrect congregations. Church planting has many benefits. It makes the church more dependent on God and more focused on evangelism. Planting forces comfortable Christians to step out in faith and take the lead in ministry areas that where previously led by professionals. A church plant can provide an area lacking a Bible teaching church with a new congregation. These advantages are just as relevant to economically deprived areas as to the affluent suburbs. Why is it then that church planters have an aversion to council estates?
One obvious reason is that most church plants are based around a group of people currently going to a middle class church who would like to start a church closer to their home. It is unlikely that these people live on a council estate, and so it is unlikely they will want to plant there.
In addition most church plants will want to be economically independent after 3 years. This is hard to achieve with a congregation of low earners, but much easier in an area of young professionals. London City Mission find that when a missionary arrives in an area much of the first 2 years go into getting to know the local shop keepers, school secretaries, imams, to understand what makes the place tick. If we judge the success or otherwise of a church plant after 2 years we will be unlikely to have any council estate churches.
The result of the church planting wave is that London’s young professional areas are overflowing with congregations. Locals have a choice of Alpha, Christianity Explored, New Frontiers, Vineyard. Council estates on the other hand remain a wasteland for Bible believing churches.
At London City Mission we want to challenge the biggest obstacles and arguments that prevent vibrant, gospel believing churches taking root in under privileged areas, so here are a few myths that need to be destroyed
1) “Council estate plants aren’t economically sustainable” .
This just can’t be right. Matthew 28 provides no get out clause for avoiding the “difficult” places. Much of church planting theory has been taken over by business models; franchises, joint ventures, syndicates, relaunches, and other helpful strategems, but these can never replace the need for prayerful, sacrificial, spirit empowered gospel ministry. When Jesus promises (John 14) that whatever we ask in his name will be given to us, he is not saying we will get a new Mercedes so long as we add the words “in Jesus name” to the end of our prayers. He is saying that we can pray BIG prayers in line with his will, about the things he delights in (1 John 5) and we will see answers to those prayers. Jesus delights to see diverse people being brought under his headship for the glory of God and so we need to be praying for Dagenham, Forest Gate, Tottenham Hale, and Kilburn.
If our current models are unsustainable then we will need to change our models. Anyone with teaching gifts inferior to Paul should at least consider tent making. Anyone with teaching gifts inferior to Stephen should consider rolling up their sleeves in community activities. Sister churches need to give until it hurts (2 Cor 9) to support each other.
2) “The Spirit hasn’t given us a heart for poorer people”.
Again, this just can’t be true. The sword of the Spirit is God’s word, and God’s word is crystal clear that our heavenly Father is looking for people from all backgrounds to praise and worship him. If you haven’t been moved by the Spirit yet then read and meditate on Psalm 96, Matthew 28, Acts 1, Revelations 7 and allow the Spirit to rebuke and encourage you. Many of our planting efforts currently target white middle class university graduates aged 20-45 or Nigerians or Ghanaians. It can’t be right that we are largely ignoring the poor, the elderly, the foreigners in our midst, in fact the Bible is clear that God finds that kind of religion anathema.
3) “We don’t have anyone living in those areas so we can’t plant there”
The early Christians were Jews, separated geographically and culturally from the rest of the world, and centered around Jerusalem. In Acts 1, Jesus told the disciples to send the Word out from Jerusalem to Judea, Samaria, and to the end of the earth. Getting the news out to Judea was like church planting where we already have friends and family. Samaria was geographically close, but culturally very different. The ends of the earth were neither geographically close not culturally similar. Both Peter and Paul needed some strong, life changing intervention to reach out cross culturally.
Today we do an OK job of reaching out to Jerusalem and Judea. The areas culturally similar to the cathedral churches are reasonably well reached. We are also managing to send people with the gospel to the ends of the earth (but not enough). Where the church in UK is failing is in our reach to Samaria. We are leaving our council estates, our elderly, the foreigners in our midst to the flames of Hell, whilst we strive for audio visual perfection in our young professional worship halls. If Paul and Peter are anything to go by Church leaders missing God’s heart for diverse, cross cultural mission can expect some heavy duty intervention from a loving Father.
I’d encourage anyone considering church planting to pray about what it will take to start a community church that genuinely reaches out the the diversity of the locality. In London, LCM are looking to support plants in this kind of work with training and evangelists. In other places people like “20 Schemes” are wanting to help out. Most importantly though, if we set out on this dangerous, life changing work, we should be encouraged that it is close to God’s heart. As we reach out to the Bangladeshi community in the East End, or the council estates of Dagenham we will need patience, love, training, endurance, God’s Word and lots of prayer. More important than the backing of LCM or a cathedral church we will need the backing of God. We can expect to see remarkable things. I am aware of amazing conversions and healings of Imam’s children as the gospel had been proclaimed across cultural boundaries. These tough cross cultural mission fields are some of the most exciting and difficult places to minister in the world. I pray that the Lord of the harvest will raise up more workers with a heart for Samaria. Please join me in that prayer.