What enters our minds when we think of inner city housing schemes, council estates and/or projects? What do the residents need to alleviate the problems they face? It is easy to try to appease a guilty conscience by doing ‘good stuff’ in these areas. Maybe helping out in a children’s club or doing some other community project. Social projects are two a penny in Niddrie. Charities and foundations getting financed off the back of the people who live here. The government seems happy to throw hundreds of thousands of pounds at a variety of projects from self-help, to the arts, to encouraging ‘green issues’. Some, doubtless, legitimate and necessary, and others a momentous waste of time and money. Worryingly, many churches seem to take an almost uncritical leaf out of these secular approaches to working in areas like ours.
In my opinion, most inner city housing schemes do not need crisis intervention and rehabilitation programmes, rather they need deep, spiritual renewal and even deeper thought on biblical, ethical developmental approaches in terms of community regeneration. We need to be planting churches. Also, if we are going to have any hope of resolving some of the generational malaise that blights these areas, we must do it in conjunction with local people. That, obviously, raises questions:
How do we work in partnership with local people? How do we encourage one another to invest in the long-term future of our schemes, for the benefit of future generations? How do we plant, raise & train truly indigenous leaders in housing schemes?
Surely, it is done in the long-term? Yet, many churches are still looking on with what I call a ‘crisis mindset’. They are not thinking past the needy people in front of them. I saw it in Brazil with street children. Many well-intentioned Christians would come out to work with the children and immediately begin spending thousands and thousands of pounds building recuperation homes and various other projects. Whilst they met an immediate and grave need, they didn’t actually try to deal with the root of the problem. Millions of pounds came in and many amazing institution were built but the problem just wouldn’t (and isn’t going) away. That is why my wife and I fought very hard with the ‘Off The Streets Project‘ we founded to concentrate on church planting and community development.
In the UK, I believe that we should let the state do its job, for better or worse. We need to evaluate our schemes with a more critical eye and leave behind the middle class guilt complex. It is damaging both to the middle class and the so-called ‘poor’ that it’s supposed to be helping (it isn’t). There are many ways to evaluate the labels, ‘poor’ and ‘deprived’ in Western culture and this is not the place to do it. But, let me assure you the ‘poor’ in Niddrie (and countless other schemes in our land) lack hope, not money. They can get that easier than us and, often, far more of it than you dare believe.
Churches (and Christians in general) need to be careful that we are not suffering from ‘soup kitchen syndrome’. This is where we react to the needs of those around us and immediately begin operating a ‘handout’ system of help. Let me tell you as a person who spent nearly 6 years homeless how the system worked in my favour. Church soup kitchens usually opened on different nights of the week (Christian solidarity and all that) and so we sussed out pretty quickly which night of the week we could get some free grub, a shower, some clothes and a bed. We had no need to spend our benefit cheques because we had our week’s mapped out. Take all the freebies we could and then spend what we could beg, borrow and steal (literally) on drink and drugs. It was a beautiful system that worked in our favour. I remember laughing with my friends about how the Christians were ‘helping’ us but not in the way they thought. They were, inadvertently helping us to carry on with our lifestyle.
Recently, I have been observing a new trend in church planting. No plan is apparently now complete without the addition of some sort of mercy ministry to encourage believers to aid the poor and oppressed of our major cities. On the one hand, I applaud this sentiment and, on the other, it makes me feel slightly uneasy. Well done to the evangelical church for waking up (at last) to the thought that God might actually just be interested in poverty, oppression and injustice. But, what is slightly galling for seasoned practitioners like myself, are those churches who have ignored our ministry for years (and left it to the work of parachurch organisations or ‘mission halls’) are now hosting talking head conferences in their nice little offices lecturing us on the principle of Jubilee in Leviticus. Ministry to the poor or mercy ministries has almost become the new test of missional orthodoxy. And, yet again, the middle class power brokers are dictating the rules of the game and the rate at which it gets played.
The problem is that the ‘poor’ have moved on. We are the church now. A precious few of us are pastors and leaders. We’ve been doing community together for a long time and what we need is a voice, a platform, and a seat at the table, not an invitation to hear ‘Johnny big name’ come and give us a lecture about how we need to reach our communities! It’s so patronisingly sad, that it’s almost hilarious! Whilst many in the church have been deciding if God is into it or not we have been breaking our backs in the field. What housing schemes planters need is parity, resources, help and encouragement. We have wisdom to give and we have wisdom to receive. But let’s be clear. We’ve moved on from just rolling up to give our testimony to a room full of bloated middle class Christians who want to live vicariously through our stories.
We need help in developing our training and material. We need help in manpower and servant heartedness. We don’t need a volunteer pitching up at our kids club for an hour a week. We need them in the community full-time involved in the grind of people’s lives. We need to be thinking long and hard about our church planting strategies and employing the language of ‘helping the poor’. Sometimes helping is not helping. Sometimes kindness is cruelty. Sometimes it is good to ask. Sometimes it is good to just come and be around a community before deciding to stick them as an addendum to a strategy. Oftentimes, the one’s who need the help are the those who think they need it the least.
Tomorrow I will be reviewing a book that asks many of these questions and more.