Journey into urban mission (part 2: My story with some observations)

Dave preaching at Bearwood Chapel

I grew up in Bradford West Yorkshire. I wasn’t an estate kid, the small cluster of owner-occupied houses where I grew up were nestled in between the large estates that dominate South Bradford. I went to the local comprehensive. The school was about 50% white working class and 50% Asian predominantly Muslim.

Observations

  1. I sat next to and was good friends with a Muslim lad. That did not stop me from buying into racial stereotypes and prejudice/fear about immigration. This is often the case. We can have good friends who are from a different background to us and still hold offensive views. This is partly due to our ability to compartmentalise.  It also reflects the risk of implicit bias as described by Duncan Forbes here.
  2. My dad had grown up on an estate in Derby. He’d been able to go to Grammar School and then went up to Oxford, the first in our family to ever go to University. He encouraged a love of learning in his own children.  That meant I ended up with the kind of “boffin” status and had curiosity value – not just to friends and peers but to teachers as well.

We went to a largish church in the city centre that started as a mission hall in a rough inner-city area.  Most of the members had moved out to the suburbs and their families now commuted in.  My dad used to preach at various smaller churches and on one occasion I remember him speaking at a mission hall on one of the estates when a group of kids came skating down the aisle. The church members could have thrown them out but instead welcomed them, got them seated and my dad changed his sermon for a children’s talk.

On another occasion, a man turned up at our church. He was the elder of a little Pentecostal church on an estate near Leeds. The pastor had decided that he would do better in another suburb and had left with the few young families. This elder was left with about half a dozen elderly people and they were desperate to keep the work going. He was looking for help. My dad and a few others started going out and preaching for the regularly and on a few occasions we went out on a Tuesday evening to help run a kids club. Later, they were one of the first churches to give me the opportunity to preach and then during my MSc year I offered to go and help them try and reach the neighbourhood.

I went around and knocked on every door on the estate with an invite to a Sunday Afternoon gathering. The first Sunday came and no-one turned up -so we too the service outdoors!  The next week a bunch of kids came along and gradually we built up a regularly group who heard the gospel. This usually relied on me leading activities, telling a Bible story and teaching some songs whilst a couple of ladies in their 80s sat in to ensure there were enough adults present. Not long before I left for Rochester in Kent the denomination got interested and sent some people in to help the church. Gradually over time they built links with the families of the kids and a church began to grow agin.

Observations

  1. I don’t think the story of that church is unusual. Little churches where those called to serve get discouraged and move on leaving a fragile Gospel work to wither and die.
  2. At the same time you find lots of stories of faithfulness -believers who have kept struggling on through dark days and learning to trust God. Those faithful believers and churches ma well be key to meaningful Gospel witness on our estates.
  3. What would have happened if people had ignored that elder’s desperate search for help?

I worked in Kent for 10 years before going up to Theological College at Oak Hill. Now before what comes next, I want to be clear. Oak Hill was and is fantastic. The teaching was fantastic and fellow students were great but one thing will stick with me and it is this. I t was not uncommon to be asked

“Which camp did you attend.”

A lot of people had become Christians through summer camps (Iwerne and similar). They had also gone on to serve at these camps and this was often their training ground for ministry. In blunt terms, your camp seemed to function like the old school tie. I discovered that my response

“I went to BB camp once”

Didn’t count as a valid answer … nor as humour!

The other thing that sadly dominated for a time was an obsessiveness about home schooling and the horrors of state education.  Now, vicars, curates and pastors, home schooling may sound like a wonderful ideal but simply is not going to be feasible for your average working class family.

Observations

  1. There’s a lively discussion going on at the moment as to whether or not conservative evangelicals have a class problem.  To some extent, I would say “Yes” for all the reasons that people like Duncan Forbes, Mez McConnell and Stephen Kneale have identified. However, I think it runs deeper than that. It wasn’t that Christians were operating in a middle class or upper-class bubble but that they belonged to a world and a culture that was so alien to everything.  It wasn’t that if you were working class you didn’t fit in, it was that if you didn’t belong to a particular unique sub-culture you didn’t fit either.
  2. A whole movement had grown up with a clear process/route into adult Christian life and ministry that went something like this:

 

–          Become a Christian at camp

–          Go up to University – especially Oxbridge and join the Christian Union where you learn how to do outreach through events

–          Continue to go to the Camps during vacations as a worker

–          Complete University and become a Ministry Trainee at a large student/graduate church

–          Go to Theological College

–          Look for a curacy/assistant pastorship -again this is likely to be in a church with enough members and enough money to support an additional worker which will again shape experience and approach.

I think – and I guess my perception could be unfair – that there was just an assumed view of what life, Christian life and Christian mission is like meaning that assumptions and strategies were shaped by that one narrow experience.

The third part of our story was post Theological Training.  I remember Sarah and I sitting down one evening to talk and pray about what next.  We both separately wrote down our thoughts and then compared notes. We had pretty much written down the same things and two key things stood out

  1. That rather than going for an assistant pastorship I should look for a church without a paid worker but seeking support from outside mentors
  2. That we wanted to be somewhere urban where there was a large population and as many opportunities as possible to share the Gospel.

And so we began looking and initially completely ignored Bearwood. Why? It’s the old implicit bias again. The first time I saw the job description I didn’t get past “Bearwood is 3 miles outside of Birmingham.” I imagined a little village in Shropshire with a duck pond and cricket on the Green. Then one day I looked again.

–          Bearwood is 3 miles from the centre of Birmingham not the border which puts it right in the middle of England’s second largest conurbation.

–          The Sandwell Borough which we are part of is one of the neediest economically and socially

–          At the same time it is a wonderful, energetic diverse community with people from every background possible.

So we came up to see the church leaders and talk with them. Here we discovered

–          That there were people who had all been given the opportunity to move away but had all felt God’s call on their lives to stay

–          A church that was praying and seeking God about how to reach the community around them.

And so here we are. We are learning that urban ministry is unpredictable, messy, challenging, busy but also hugely enjoyable.

We see a great need around us in Sandwell, West Birmingham and into the Back Country. At times it feels like we are simply “off the beaten track” for conservative evangelicals looking for ministry opportunities but we are anything but off the beaten track when it comes to where people who are hungry for the Gospel are.

That’s why we started the ActBC project because we want to see many more Gospel workers alongside us in a great and needy mission field.

So that’s a little of my story. If you check out the websites linked here you’ll get to meet some other people with different stories but a similar passion to see urban Britain reached for Christ. All of us would love to see more labourers in the Harvest field. Get in touch if that could be you.

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