I am in the middle of an experience that is uncommon for me. It is a galling, raw sort of experience that renders me uncomfortable and ill at ease. It has been partly triggered by my husband’s potential impending redundancy, but this is the surface skin of a chasm that runs much deeper.
I am a middle class, reasonably educated, professional Christian woman. I enjoy some of the usual perks and privileges afforded to those of my tribe – home ownership, the occasional bit of Cath Kidston merchandise, self-confidence and the ability to advocate for myself to name just a few.
This new ground that I am walking is strange and unfamiliar territory. I find that I am still able to speak, but with no guarantees of being heard. I find that despite being in possession of various skills learned over the years, I am feeling like a bumbling novice with no real clue what she’s doing.
A small part of why I feel this way I think, is because we haven’t done what we were supposed to do. You see, my husband and I are aspiring church leaders. We came to faith in evangelical churches, were raised in a large charismatic church, and set loose on the world of ministry with dreams of multitudes, platforms, slick worship sets and answers for the Hard Questions.
Now we find ourselves in a small urban church, from our platform we mainly address rowdy kids at the end of Messy Church, we regularly worship to CD’s and we have more questions than answers.
We count what we do to be an enormous privilege. There is honestly nothing better than seeing the face of a child light up when they begin to really understand that God’s love is available to them. It is an absolute joy and honour to hear families tell us that they feel safe and welcome in a church for the first time. When some of our formerly unchurched young people told us the other week that what they really want in the youth group is more prayer, “Because it changes things”, well – it doesn’t really get much better than that. We love what we do, and we love the people we get to do it with.
There is a “but” though…What we are doing doesn’t look much like the kind of Christian “success” that many of us are comfortable with. It’s Messy, with no guarantees that what emerges from this process of Christian midwifery will be a bouncing baby church with shiny happy worship and rows of shiny happy faces.
Our parish is in the top 5% of national deprivation. Many of the people that we hope to introduce to the life-changing love of Jesus are affected by poverty and subsequently also by family breakdown, worklessness, debt, mental health problems, substance misuse and crime. Not wanting to risk making us out to be more radical and pioneering than we are, I’ll be honest and tell you that we have been working in this community for six years, and we are still barely scratching the surface.
I like to keep things simple, and if I’m reading the Bible the right way round, I’m pretty sure there’s no escaping that God is passionate about the poor, the needy, the broken and the destitute. I’ve heard it preached over and over, I’ve preached it myself a fair few times, and yet as a church, I’m increasingly feeling that WE JUST DON’T LIVE LIKE IT’S TRUE.
Here’s a bit of a backstory. I’m training to be a vicar at the moment, but before I did this, I worked in urban schools as a learning mentor, and in the NHS as a trainee child therapist. My work meant that I had the privilege of working with families who were dealing with a wide variety of challenges. Before this, I had also been a foster carer, so working alongside families grappling with the care system has been a part of my experience. During some study, I read a fascinating paper by child psychotherapist Gianna Henry, where she talks about the way in which the deprivation experienced by so many of the children and families in the care system causes them to develop strong defences that keep people out and thereby “Doubly Deprive” them of the resources that might be able to make a difference. (Did anyone watch “The Casual Vacancy” on BBC 1? Krystal Weedon would be a classic example of this sort of defense behaviour) Subsequently, another child psychotherapist, Louise Emanuel, described the phenomenon of “Triple deprivation”, where the deprivation encountered is ‘reworked’ in the system around the child. When this happens, the sense of despondency that has been provoked by the child’s immediate situation is replayed and relocated in those who are working to alleviate the problems – meaning that both the child and the professionals can be caught in cycles of negativity and failure that never get broken. In simple terms, the child’s own experiences of loss and deprivation repeat themselves in and through the systems that are supposed to be bringing transformation. If you find this hard to believe, listen to the news; barely a day goes by on our school run when I don’t have to turn the volume down to protect my 5 year old from the dulcet tones of Moira Stewart on Radio 2 reporting yet more sexual abuse of vulnerable young girls in the care system.
And so to my point: Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t get caught up in the same sort of cycles in the church? We think we’re all about transformation, but we are so easily derailed and thrown off course when we stare the gritty reality of brokenness in the face.
Here’s the thing – when we have known great pain, loss and poverty, we do what all human beings do: we build ourselves defences that we hope will keep the bad guys out and keep us safe in the process. The problem is that human beings are so dependent upon relationship to thrive and stay alive, that our attempts at defensive living are notoriously poor. We lock ourselves into prisons that we craft for ourselves from our most painful experiences, and we mentally throw away the key.
Hurt, defended, broken people don’t make for a “successful” church. They can be prickly and prone to lashing out, they may be chaotic and inconsistent, they might be radically saved and then disappear for six months, they may passionately love Jesus, but continue to live in ways that feel uncomfortable to us more ‘churchified’ Christians. The church that was formerly OUR safe place and refuge may never meet our needs again, and it might be that every time we gather to worship, we find ourselves staring down our own insecurities, questions and stark naked failings. Nothing about this is comfortable.
I have been in wonderful worship meetings where visions have been birthed for our cities to be brought back to God. In my best moments, this is what I want – but I don’t think it will look the way we hope it might. Our cities include many people whose lives have been shaped by raw, unyielding pain. God is in the business of transforming love – and when these two things collide, the result is often a beautiful hot mess.
And this is where I’m going to get controversial: I worry that in the UK church, we are failing to be counter-cultural. We are just not ready to deal with that level of mess. So many of our children’s services are failing our most vulnerable young people by getting caught into cycles of triple-deprivation that simply rework and move young people’s problems around the systems designed to protect them. In the same way, I wonder if we, the church, are so wedded to the need to feel successful and powerful in the face of obvious decline, that we simply cannot take the risk of really engaging with those who would show us where we are the most powerless. Of course, it is a choice that we are all free to make, but friends, THIS IS NOT THE GOSPEL. What would really be counter-cultural would be for those of us who have known a measure of healing and transformation to get stuck in to some of the places that look the hardest and the least inviting. There is some really encouraging growth happening in some large UK churches, and this is a great thing. These churches can be resourcing bases, where people can grow and be sent out from – but if we think that large, city centre resourcing churches are going to spearhead national revival, we may need to think again, because I’m beginning to see that God’s paradigm of success looks a lot like our idea of failure. Church, are we brave enough to embrace “failure” in all its vulnerability and will we go to those places that have been so broken that not even God’s people have dared to hope for change?
Here are God’s economics as I am coming to understand them:
Poor in spirit=Rich in Kingdom
In mourning=Will be comforted
Hungry to see things put right=Will be filled
Merciful=Will be shown mercy
This is a beautiful Godly overturning of everything we are so prone to cling on to. God always leads us, sometimes gently and sometimes forcibly out of our barricaded places of safety and into his glorious plains of reckless freedom. He does this because those who have been led out of captivity have to learn to live into freedom, and those of us who have been given keys, must open doors for others.
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” (Galatians 5:1)