Getting past the Urban Mission impasse

I feel that we are at a bit of an impasse with urban mission. I have participated in numerous conversations over the past couple of years about the need for people and resources into urban priority areas. However, those conversations have been quite frustrating at times because:

1.       For most of the time, the conversation is primarily between the same people who are already on board and involved in urban mission. My perception is that others are not joining the conversation from outside of urban mission. This increases the frustration and the sense that blogs and social media simply create a noisy echo chamber

2.       Occasionally a big name conference speaker, writer or Bishop will make some kind of pronouncement in the media or at a conference about the need but then they seem to disappear off the radar and what is more, for whatever reason, they don’t seem to want to join the conversation with those at the coal face. To be fair, they are busy and urban mission is just one thing on their agenda.

3.       There is the usual sense that “someone” needs to do something . But who is that someone? We slip into talking about what “The Church” is doing or is not doing.  This raises the question, especially for independent evangelicals “what do we mean by The Church.”

The risk, as I see it, is that we will be no further forward. This will lead to exhaustion and frustration from those involved in urban ministry. This will breed resentment and division between the Church in prosperous areas and the Church in poor areas. This means that our conversations will not be glorifying to God and many people will still not be hearing the Gospel.

So, here are a few reflections.

1.       When we talk about The Church, we need to recognise that the primary agency of this is local churches and they are the ones we need to be having the conversation with. We need to think about how this can happen. Organisations like the FIEC, Affinity and Partnership UK have a part to play in this.

2.       This leads to an important recognition from those of us engaged in urban mission. The priority mission of churches in more prosperous, middle class, suburban and student/graduate areas is and always should be reaching the communities where God has placed them.  This is why I am keen to emphasise that I believe in both/and. Generally speaking this is true of  most people who are working in inner city and estate contexts. We want to see students, graduates, bankers, solicitors, doctors and teachers put their faith in Jesus.

3.       I think we also need to explicitly state that those contexts are hard to reach too. Churches in secular, prosperous communities are as much churches in hard places as churches on estates. It is a different type of hardness. Where I lived now, I know everyone on my road. We talk, we clear snow together, we look out for each other. They all know about our church involvement. Contrast that with when I lived in Kent. I don’t think my next door neighbour knew or even wanted to know my name, let alone anything else about me.  Now that makes Gospel witness hard!

4.       We also need to recognise that if the church is most predominant in certain areas, then without it being a criticism of what those churches are doing for their communities, then mission that reaches out beyond their communities will need different approaches.

This is where I want to go into a bit more detail.

First of all, what are we/ should we be asking of local churches in middle class contexts? There’s been a lot of talk about urban ministry funds. I can see the possible benefit of that, especially if administered by people like The FIEC and CPI. However, funds don’t just come into existence, ex nihilo. What I would like other churches to hear from us is that there is a mission need on your door step. Most local churches that I know are very good at setting mission budgets and giving generously to missionaries and mission organisations. Generally speaking, I hear churches talking in terms of the classic 10%. Whether some could give more is for them to consider.

The question I want to ask is “Where does  your mission budget go?” Does it all go overseas or do you set aside some for what used to be called Home Missions? Can I encourage you to consider Home Missions as part of your mission  support. Most of the UK is now unevangelised.

The next question I want to ask is, if you support “Home Missions” where does the support go? Usually what I hear from people is that the support goes to charities and parachurch organisations. This includes some great works such as TLG, CAP etc. These organisations are doing great work and what is impressive is that those two specifically grew out of the mission of a (not massive) local church in Bradford. They both continue to have gospel proclamation at their heart. However, supporting those organisations is not the same as supporting local churches. In fact, their operational models mean that they tend to charge local churches for their services. We would still have to pay a fee to receive their training and materials.

What I want to encourage you to consider is that if mission is meant to be through the local church, is your mission support getting to local churches in the front line? Please stop and check. The biggest difference in terms of seeing people come to Christ and grow in him on our estates and inner cities will happen when there are healthy churches in those communities.

This brings me to the next point. There are lots of communities where a viable local church, preaching the Gospel does not yet exist. That’s why church planting is a fantastic thing to prioritise. The predominant model and image of church planting is that a church of about 300-400 people identifies a group of about 30-50 and encourages them to form a new church. A planter is identified who is essentially the pastor and the sending church will provide resources to get things going. Now, for all sorts of reasons, I think that’s a brilliant strategy for a church that is at capacity. It frees up space in the existing gathering, it creates a new witness and it encourages both those who stay and those who remain to grow in their gifts. Please keep doing that.

What I am asking churches to recognise is that this model of church planting is limited. It will only get you so far. It relies on having a significant cluster of people living in or being willing to move into an area. Mother – Daughter church plants are going to be limited to reaching the communities within the sphere of the sending church. It is another wing of your own local outreach.

The types of areas that we are looking for help in reaching will not be reached by that model. They are the areas where graduates don’t tend to move into. Even if a significant group of people moved into the area, it would not help because they would immediately stand out if they moved in on mass as an alien group, barriers would be created, not taken down.

So, I am asking you to take urban pioneer church planting seriously as part of your mission model. Just as you encourage people to consider going as missionaries overseas to the Arab World and East Asia, I am asking you to consider sending and supporting someone as an urban missionary. This is where partnership with existing urban churches like ours can help. Through our ActBC initiative we would love to link up with potential pioneer planters into the urban West Midlands and help them with mentoring, training, fellowship, accountability, and help you to find additional financial support for them.

I mention what we are doing partly as a request. Please come and help us but also partly as an example. I frequently mention here other examples of urban ministry including the work of Duncan Forbes in London,  Oldham Bethel and 20 Schemes in Scotland, please consider how you might be able to support  their mission.

 We often talk about Gospel Partnership. It’s a great buzz phrase but genuine Gospel Partnership needs to go beyond fraternals and conferences. How can churches in different contexts genuinely partner together for the Gospel?



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