Posts Tagged ‘community development’

I bought this book with no little excitement given the list of theological luminaries that have recently been recommending it as a must read. Ron Sider, for instance, calls it: “probably the best book on how to do holistic community development.”

There is no doubt that it is certainly comprehensive in its treatment of the issues, certainly far more than any other book I have read to date on the issue. It’s chapters on ‘Poverty & The Poor’ (Pp115-148) are particularly detailed and helpful as they help us to discover who the poor are, who they are not, what poverty is, the cases of poverty and even the poverty of the non poor.

Ultimately, this is a book about (1) ‘Transformational Development’ which Myers describes as, “positive change in the whole of human life materially, socially, psychologically and spiritually.” (p3) It is also about (2) ‘Christian Witness’ which he describes as, “my being compelled by to share the good news that God has, through His Son, made it possible for every human being to be in covenant relationship with God.” (p4)

Obviously, this is too vast a book to justice on one meaningless little blog in cyberspace but I will try to at least engage with the parts that I remember most both positively and negatively. This is a book replete with real pearls of wisdom. For example, when speaking of many people’s desire to try to solve poverty by increasing material wealth, Myers is scathing: “research shows that when the poor receive additional income, the extra money is spent on festivals, TV’s, medical emergencies, alcohol, tobacco, and better tasting but not more nutritious food.” (p39) I would say that this is often a charge levelled at our benefits culture here on the scheme (something not tackled in the book). The more benefits they get the more they spend it on rubbish (or so the argument goes). However, it is not just the poor or the benefits ‘scrounger’ that make these errors but, according to Myers, it is a Western cultural problem. “We in the west often make unexpected and seemingly irrational choices when it comes to how we spend money on food and other things. Our spending choices are not always consistent with what we know is best for us; why should we expect the poor to be any different.” (p39) Or even the benefits class for that matter. Although I am sure an argument can be made for those of us who ‘waste’ money are at least wasting it having earned it in the first place!

There were some startling statistics with regard to global income. for instance:

“The good news is that the percentage of people living on less than $2 a day has dropped from 95% in 1820 to 43% in 2008 (World bank 2008). In the almost 25 years between 1981 and 2005, the absolute number of people living in absolute poverty has dropped from 1.9B to 1.4B (25%) with the largest declines in China, India and, more recently, Brazil and Indonesia (World bank 2010). The good news is that development assistance is at its highest in history. The number of non-poor in the world is also at its highest in history. the not so good news is that they are struggling with obesity, consumerism, and a deteriorating natural environment.” (Pp44-45)

In His chapter on ‘Theology, poverty and development’ (pp47-103), Myers revisits familiar ground concerning the ‘evangelism v social action’ debate. Still, it makes for interesting reading, particularly the section that deals with the importance of the Trinity in our understanding of human need. “If human beings are made in the image of this triune community, then our understanding of the individual must be very different from the autonomous, self-determining individual of Western culture.” (p60) In another place he appeals to the creation mandate and the principle of stewardship as proof that “the right to use is prior to the right to own.”

So far so good. Then I run into some problems. “On the cross, in addition to cancelling our sin, Paul tells us that Christ disarmed the powers and authorities, making a public spectacle of them (Col. 2:20). In Christ, we no longer have to accept the rule of oppressive structures or of deceiving and dominating social systems. Their transformation is also included in Christ’s finished work.” (p75) A couple of points here. Firstly, it is Colossians 2:15 not v20 that talks of Christ defeating the principalities and powers. Secondly, the text is referring to the rebellious satanic horde, making the last sentence in Myer’s quote something of an exegetical stretch. Paul, who lived worked and suffered under one of the most oppressive regimes in history and yet did not utter one word about resisting human authorities, powers and oppressive systems.

His discussion on the role of the church and transformational development is an interesting one. Positively, Myers is clear:

“God brings the kingdom (of God); it is neither our task nor that of our transformational development. We must not put the weight of kingdom building on our shoulders; we cannot carry it nor are we expected to. Development workers as Christians need to embrace the fact that their local community of faith is the local church wherever they work among the poor.” (p77)

He goes on to warn, rightly I think, of the dangers of para-church organisations who have separated themselves from the local church. However, he does not really go on to explain and/or investigate how these two can be brought closer together or how we practically address the ongoing debate in this area.

In his chapter on poverty and the poor (Pp105ff) he reminds us that we must fight against our tendencies in the West to look down upon them and even attempt to play God in their lives. He also challenges the assumption, again, that just providing materially for the poor will somehow not make them poor anymore. He helpfully looks at the various ‘clusters of disadvantage’ that poor have to face, including; material poverty, physical weakness, isolation, vulnerability, powerlessness and spiritual poverty (p115). All of these are helpful in trying to find a more comprehensive diagnosis of the problem of poverty. He is spot on when he says on page 133 that how we view the cause of poverty will affect how we respond to it. So, for example, if we see poverty as a sin issue then our response will be evangelism and uplift. However, if we see it as a problem with social structures then we will work to change them.

I will leave the last word on affirming the role of the church in transformational development. “At the end of the day, the work of holistic mission belongs to the church, not the development agency or the development professional per se.” (p191) He goes on to quote Newbiggin:

“It is surely a fact of inexhaustible significance that what our Lord left behind him was not a book or a creed, not a system of thought, nor a rule of life, but a visible community…He committed the entire work of salvation to that community…The church does not depend for its existence upon our understanding of it or faith in it.” (Pp191-192)

In my humble opinion, the local church is the key to any real, lasting societal transformation. More than that, church planting in housing schemes has to be the strategy for reaching the poor and vulnerable in the UK. Not for the aim of social transformation but for glorifying God through the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and living as a redeemed community in the midst of broken and lost people. I would recommend that you buy the book if you are thinking about working in poorer areas (or even if you are not). It is a long read, and sometimes complex, but it is worthwhile engaging with the issues. Yes, there are some frustrations and weaknesses, but there is very little like it on the market right now that is seeking to engage with these issues from an evangelical perspective.


Gentrification is a phenomenon that is occurring in schemes all over Scotland (indeed the UK). It is a word that has been in use for many centuries but was brought to the fore in the early sixties by a sociologist who observed how middle class people moving into traditional working class areas, often displaced the very poor. Regardless of opinion, it always signifies a change in the makeup of a local community when low-income housing is ether demolished and/or refurbished and wealthier people begin to move into the neighbourhood. Usually, what occurs (at least in schemes) is that poor income families (and “problem” ones) are relocated to make way for the middle (sometime called “educated”) classes. There is often widespread building work and community regeneration of shops, businesses and parks. All of the above is happening and has happened to Niddrie over the last decade. Of course, there is much more to say on this – but this is the bottom line (I want to write a few posts on the topic in the coming months).

I am left in little doubt that the vast majority of working class people, small business owners and the local authorities view the process as a good and healthy thing. It is often associated with “weeding out” the inherent social problems and “lifting up” the area in which it occurs. Much can be said about this topic (and I will blog more on this – I promise) but I just wanted to point out a few good and bad points to the gentrification of our housing schemes.

1. Good. If you own your own home and your housing prices go up as the area improves.

2. Bad. If you don’t own your own home and you have to move out of a place you have lived for generations to make way for developers. It appears that gentrification might just make the poor poorer! (surprise surprise)

3. Good. If you are a local business because new people and redevelopment attract new consumers.

4. Good. If you are involved in the building industry (for obvious reasons).

5. Good. If you have been plagued by “problem people” and “drug houses” which are being removed from the area.

6. Bad. If it means that the new middle class bring with them their individualism and personal materialism.

7. Bad. If you are a church (like ours) that saw huge swathes of local children in their Sunday schools diminish to nothing as people are relocated.

8. Good. Skills and a growing work ethic return to the community.

9. Bad. The community is destroyed by those who move in as first time buyers and have no communal interest other than securing their foot on the property ladder and moving on and “up” as soon as possible.

10. Bad. for those who would like to own their own home but can’t because of ridiculously high property prices (and rentals).

11.Good. If you are a landlord for the reasons stated above.

So, is this process good or bad for Niddrie? Well, at this stage it is difficult to tell. Niddrie is certainly a quieter place than it once was. A safer place? Not particularly. The new people moving in are suspicious of the locals and vice-versa. It has enhanced a divide that has always been there but now it is on their doorstep. A guy watching a young family move into a £200K house on the site of where his pals used to live is not best pleased about it. Of course, the wealthy move in and are huddled together, marked out by their shiny new homes and a target for many. On the other hand, there is a renewed sense of pride about the place. The arts are going strong and there is still a good community vibe. There have been a couple of locals who have started businesses and are doing well for themselves thanks to community grants but this is an experiment in social engineering that will be measured in another 10 years. At the moment the “indigenous” community (those that are left) are going along with it (they have to) and new people are tentatively moving in. How (and if) we move toward communal synergism will be the interesting thing.

What can we as a local church do about it? A discussion for another day. Blessings. All (serious) comments will be appreciated.

by Mike Stark

Most of us are familiar with the terms  ADD or ADHD (attention deficit disorder, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). We work with and know many local children who have been diagnosed as such, placing them in a box and giving them a medical label to help them understand their (so-called) deficiency. Closely tied to these conditions is the issue of “attention span(s)”. Much is said, and has been published, about the length of time young people can really concentrate on something. The average young person, apparently, has an attention span of around 10-20 minutes. In our local High School, lessons last 50 minutes. In the High School where my wife teaches, periods last 35 minutes. The theory being that young people can only concentrate on a topic for a short period of time before needing to move on to something else.

So, when we see these articles that pop up from time to time, telling us that children can only concentrate for short bursts, and that their minds are being eroded by TV and video games, we may naturally begin to think about our context within the church and, specifically, our preaching on Sundays. Are our sermons too long for our young people? Are our sermons even too long for the adults?

Since the start of the year, our average sermon length at Niddrie has been 29.5 minutes long (yes, I have counted!). We often have a group of people from the community coming along to services on a Sunday morning. In recent months, we’ve also had a few young people as a direct result of  our school’s work and the other activities we do, such as our Youth Café. These individuals are not Christians, they’re ‘un-churched’, and they’re generally not in the habit of sitting and listening to a 30 minute sermon.

Bearing this in mind, we’ve been careful about our preaching recently, and those that bear the bulk of the teaching responsibility take great care each week to contextualise their message, often meeting together to run through it on the Friday beforehand to share ideas. They’ve also been careful about the length, although I’m not even convinced that the length of a sermon is necessarily the defining issue. Many of us will have experience of 10 minute sermons that have bored us to tears within the first minute. My old minister always says, in preaching: “If you’ve not struck oil in the first few minutes, stop boring”. On the other hand, I’m sure we’ve sat through 60 minute sermons that seemed to fly by. So the length isn’t everything.

Recent experience has shown me that even a group of Niddrie young people can sit still, listen to, and learn from a 30 minute sermon. Without going into too much more detail about some of the technical and structural changes the preachers have made (that would be an other blog post), I’d like to share with you just a few things that have worked well for us in Niddrie with the young people who have been coming along each week.

  1. Sit with the young people throughout the service. Be deliberate and make sure other youth leaders in the church are being deliberate too. In our church, some of us have to get up to play instruments; we have to make sure that when we get up, the young person we were sat next to isn’t left by themselves. Young people don’t like being a Norman-nae mates – sit with them!
  2. Try and ensure young people have the freedom to make a little noise. They’ll need someone to help them find their way through the Bible, they may not understand something that’s been said and sometimes they’ll want to ask a question. This can be done quite easily and without being a distraction to the rest of the church if, (a) you’re putting into practice number 1 above, and (b) the young person is capable of whispering – which is never a guarantee. Hopefully whoever is preaching will be sensitive to the situation and not get too distracted and/or irate. I’ve tried to speak to whoever is preaching beforehand to be sure they’re aware. One young man who came for the first time last week (after a number of invites) needed to leave early to visit his dad. He told me beforehand, and so I told Mez beforehand; that way he wouldn’t be distracted when he got up to leave. Sometimes a short answer to a young person’s question isn’t possible, and will have to be explained further after the service. Be sure and remember what the question was!
  3. Finally, give them a notebook and a pen. This has been the most helpful thing we’ve done. Mez said that the best thing anyone did for him when he started coming to church was to put a notebook and pen in his hand. It gives them something to focus on and it helps them to process what’s said and even reflect on it later. Two of the boys that have been coming along recently will testify to the difference it has made for them. It helps that I also take notes, so there is a sense in which they’re watching me and doing as I do. So far they have been copying points that I’ve noted down, but that’s because they’re not used to note-taking. With time, they’ll be able to jot down their own thoughts and points that have challenged or encouraged them throughout the sermon. It’s a skill that needs to be learned, but it first needs to be put into practice.

None of these are particularly new or revolutionary ideas. There’s still much more that could be said on tweaks and changes that the preacher could make in order to help maintain young people’s attention; but perhaps these are a few helpful suggestions if you’re the one  sitting in the congregation each week, wanting to help your young people engage more with what’s being taught up front.

Avoid Paternalism & Dependency

Many, great, Western missiological thinkers have battled with the issue of paternalism in cross cultural contexts for decades. What exactly is paternalism?

The essence of paternalism is providing outside direction and resources by some “mature” party to someone considered “immature” and not yet capable to carry full leadership responsibility. Though it is much more than providing money, money is a tremendous force for paternalism.

It was an issue I battled in Brasil when I planted the “Good News Church.” We wanted to pass full responsibility on to a Brasilian pastor pretty quickly but many missionaries felt that I needed to stay longer to “train and develop” the people. I was 31 years old, had only been saved 8 years, it was my first church plant, I spoke basic Portuguese and I had limited pastoral experience. The man they wanted me to “train and develop” was in his late 40’s, had been a believer for over 20 years, a pastor for at least 15 of them, was a professor of Greek and Hebrew at a local seminary and wanted to take over the pastorate of the church. You tell me who needed “training and development?” The issue was because I was white, Western and had a few more quid in the bank that somehow I was better qualified than my Brasilian friend. They were wrong and we left.

Paternalism can be a danger in schemes, particularly when middle class believers can (sometimes inadvertently) come across as superior to those who may not have had the same basic education or even read as many books as them. They can view the “people” here as somehow inferior and in need of their particular brand of godliness and expertise. In Niddrie I work hard to ensure that people know we are all equal in God’ sight and some of us have particular talents. The point is that ALL who come to Christ have been saved to serve and thus the Holy Spirit empowers, equips and gives gifts to ALL people in order for them to serve Him better. The key is to not elevate one gift above another and to unlock the gifting in each individual. We must give people a chance to serve and not wait until they are somehow magically “ready” or we feel that they have every part of their life “in order.” Otherwise, we will be waiting a long time for development at any level on the schemes. Paternalism (closely linked to control) is a safe game to play but it usually results in stunted growth, both for the individual concerned and the gospel witness in the community.

Closely aligned to this is the problem of dependency. Once we have reached out to people and they have become a part of our community (both as Christians and otherwise) we have a duty to teach them to take responsibility for their own lives. The danger for many ministries in council schemes is that they can create dependency. The government (and society) is paying the price for this now with our current benefits system. In the OT, in particular, we read that God taught his people to care for the poor but we also read in Deuteronomy 24 and Leviticus 19 that he set in store the principle of “gleaning” so that they could take care of themselves. Yes, we must try to take care of the needs of our own people first (believers) and then those in the wider community, but we must also try to operate systems where people can work to ease their situation (we offer various incentives for this at Niddrie). If they are not prepared to look at ways (in partnership with us) to better their own lives, then we are not prepared to do it for them. I think we are on solid, biblical ground with this approach to both evangelism and discipleship here.

We have made some mistakes in these areas at Niddrie but, thankfully, God has been gracious to us. I pray that he would continue to be so as we make some more mistakes in the future. Sometimes it is messy in schemes and there are no easy answers. Sometimes there are quick solutions (rarely) but often it is painstaking stuff. People just want help out of the moment of pain they are in and our instinct is to do it for them, but we have to be brave enough to see the bigger picture and not just stick a plaster on a gaping wound. God help us as we reach out to the very many needy on our doorstep in ways that glorify God, honour the gospel of the Lord Jesus, serve our communities and empower those in need to partner with us in helping themselves and giving back to society instead of just taking all the time.

Incarnational Living | Church Planting | Urban Youth Ministry | Missional Community| Urban Church

Proximity 2012 is a conference happening this May (25th-26th) in Salford, hosted by the Eden Network. It aims to bring these five streams above together in one place for two days of vision, conversation, inspiration and celebration. If you’re a leader or practitioner in any of these five overlapping areas of ministry Proximity could be of interest to you. Our tickets are being booked this week.

Proximity will be light-hearted and yet intelligent; fast-paced and yet reflective; boundary-pushing and yet affirming.

For more information, you can download the programme here. Or visit

Mark Dever notes on The Gospel Coalition blog, that:

Since the Fall, the trajectory of unredeemed human history—the City of Man—is always in the Bible to judgment (the Flood, Babel, Canaan, Egypt, Jerusalem, Babylon, Rome & then Rev. 19). (Not quite as universal as gravity, but seemingly as inevitable in its overall tendency.)

For a comprehensive overview of the Pastor and his relation to his community, read his full article here.

Many churches, likewise, believe that the world is going to hell in a handcart and therefore our role is to preach Christ, rescue some and leave the rest to their own devices. Others believe that we have a role to play when God ultimately ushers in the renewal of all things at the end times.  The result for former group is slipping into a separatist approach to evangelism.  For the latter, it is slipping into a cultural accommodationalism.

Now, I can see how certain eschatological positions can lead us down both tracks when it comes to the relationship between the church and its immediate culture. In fact, I see their legacy in housing schemes up and down the country. It shows itself in two main ways.

1. Those who have historically fought for doctrinal and theological purity at the expense of cultural engagement (for fear of watering down the gospel) now find themselves on the fringes of schemes, with aged, dying congregations. They have a gospel with nobody to preach it to. It suits their worldview of “them against the world” and it is leaving generations with no clue about the good news of Jesus. On the other hand, those who have sought to adapt and engage with culture at the expense of biblical truths tend to be very socially aware but have the same aged, dying congregations. They are viewed as little more than a social work agency and people don;t come when evangelism is not practiced. Both sides are losing out with the real losers being the very people they are supposed to be reaching with the good news of Jesus Christ. Whilst the Christian world has been drawing their theological lines, real live souls have been perishing for lack of witness. In the words of some, old, dead dude: ‘A plague on both your houses’.

2. Because of this turn of events, much of the evangelism community development work is being carried out in schemes by a combination of government agencies (which is only right) and para-church organisations. Groups are visiting schools and doing RE classes, running clubs and trying to reach young people for Christ, but largely detached from any local congregation whatsoever, and without any real long-term aims and objectives to combat the ‘congregational crisis’ we now face. On the one hand, how can we blame them when the local church is either (a) dead or (b) not doing its job (either from a lack of heart or because it is just unable to).

The only way to reverse these trends is to plant new churches and/or renew existing ones. Spiritual Community renewal and development will not happen at a root level if the local church is not central to our plans. In Brasil when we founded our street children project, we did it with a church plant at the core. Why so? A number of reasons:

1. A localised congregation gives a solid, consistent thrust for concerted evangelistic efforts.

2. It offers a place for spiritual accountability for those working in the field. Many para-church workers I have met (particularly youth workers) have little or no spiritual accountability and have either been burned out or are in danger of burning out trying to deal with the rigours of a front line ministry such as ours.

3. It offers a context in which young converts and believers can grow in discipleship, in community, together. So, it avoids the hit and miss problem of people parachuting in, trying to reach out and then leaving people in the wind until the outsiders return again.

The local church has the responsibility to evangelise, disciple, nurture and prepare people to worship and serve the Living God in their respective communities. Surely, loving our neighbours shouldn’t be handed to those outside of our doors? Are we loving our communities? Are we serving our communities? If we love a community and seek to know it then ideas for outreach, evangelism, mission and development will naturally flow out of this. I think many churches struggle to make an impact on schemes because they do not love their communities enough to really know them at a deep and intimate level. We cannot love the Lord and the gospel if we do not love people. The gospel needs a conduit for it to do its powerful, transforming work. Too many churches are burying their treasure in a field and hanging on for the master to come again.

We recently received news from our church plant in Brasil – The Good News Church – which is an indigenous community that operates in the poorest neighbourhood in the poorest state in Brasil. It’s poor! The church is small (50ish people) and yet recently they clubbed together and built 6 new homes in the community for displaced families! That is gospel driven community development in action. Despite fears in some quarters, it does not water down the Word but rather offers a living example of the reality of the message that congregation is trying to bring to its community.

I appreciate the nuances of this debate, I really do. Christ above all, gospel before all, but when discipleship becomes indistinguishable from helping people deal with some of their life issues, then we have a duty of care. Let’s not protect the gospel to death. That would be a crime.

I am sure we’ll revisit this at some point.

Part A: Church Based Community Development

In his book, Generous Justice, Tim Keller states:

“All I know is, if I don’t care about the poor, if my church doesn’t care about the poor, that’s evil.”

Jesse Johnson, writing an article for The Cripplegate Blog, has a somewhat different perspective. He writes:

…the fact of the matter is that nowhere does the Bible command the church to care for the poor of the world, to lower the poverty rates in society, or to care for the homeless in our community. There are zero verses that command this, and several that even argue against it.

The question of the role of the church in culture, particularly as it relates to matters of social justice, is popping up in all sorts of forums across the Christian spectrum and has been addressed in various blogs, articles and books from men like Mark Dever, John Piper, Tim Keller and Kevin DeYoung et al. I have no wish to further comment on issues I have already blogged about on this site and may do so again in the future (check out the topics section the left hand side of the home page).

My concern in this post is to ask the question of the role of the church as it relates within a poor community. That, to my mind, is a somewhat different concern than a ministry to the poor and oppressed. Reaching out to the poor and planting a church among them are two entirely different propositions. In spite of the reams being written and said, when I have visited many church’s in the UK and overseas, I haven’t exactly been trampled to death by the stampede of poor people attending their services!

I am not, unlike many, trying to build a church with a heart for the poor, I am seeking to build a church of God worshippers in the heart of a deprived scheme. That is a somewhat more complex task! Now, I am with Jesse (and others) when it comes to understanding that the commands to love the poor and care for the widow etc are there for the benefit of the Christian Community primarily (although by no means exclusively). He, I think correctly, gives voice to the concern of over emphasising the needs of the poor:

I am making the observation that when money is going to soup kitchens, it is not going to missions. To guard against that, the church is never commanded to show compassion to the poor as a means for expanding the kingdom. Simply put, you owe the poor the gospel; Jesus died to purchase for them the privilege of hearing the testimony of his death and resurrection (1 Tim 2:6).

Mark Dever is even more direct on this topic.

We, as a congregation, are not required to take responsibility for the physical needs in the unbelieving community around us. We do have a responsibility to care for the needs of those within our congregation (Matt. 25:34-40; Acts 6:1-6; Gal. 6:2, 10; James 2:15-16; I John 3:17-19) though even within the church, there were further qualifications (e.g., II Thess. 3:10; I Tim. 5:3-16). Paul’s counsel to Timothy (in I Tim. 5:3-16) about which widows to care for seems to indicate that the list was intended for Christian widows. One qualification seemed to be lack of alternative sources of support. Thus the instruction that family members should care for the needy first, if at all possible, shows the kind of prioritization of allowing for families—even of unbelievers—to provide support so that the church wouldn’t have to do it (I Tim. 5:16). We can extrapolate from this to conclude that support that could be provided from outside the church (for instance, from the state) should be preferred over using church funds, thus freeing church funds to be used elsewhere.

I couldn’t agree more in terms of the financial aspect of social action and/or community development (however you want to define it). At Niddrie we are not concerned with financial handouts (though we do have an interest free loan initiative in extreme emergencies for both members and non members). As I’ve said before, people here generally aren’t lacking financially, and the state, if anything, is a hindrance in many ways to community development, rather than an aid to it. Indeed, our concern has even less to do with changing the social structures around us and more to do with (1) evangelistic opportunities and (2) discipleship issues. Let me take our Bike project as an example of what I mean.

Niddrie has a huge criminal problem with stolen mountain bikes. Combine this with a huge interest in the sport on the scheme. In a more middle class area with an established youth work, and a solid Christian base, Bible studies may be an option. Here, they are not. So, we have an opportunity to contact people who would never darken the door of a Sunday meeting, go to an evangelistic event or meet a Christian of any shape or form. Our project then serves the purpose as a vehicle (it’s ultimate objective) for evangelism. A young person may then be saved and so can spend further time in the workshop fixing a bike whilst being discipled by one of our youth team. Getting into the Bible then ensues. It just so happens that this vehicle of our comes with a few added extras. Crime goes down (not massively, but it has an effect). Less bikes are being stolen in and around the church. The local police send us their stolen bikes to use as we report any stolen bikes to them. The local school uses our project to motivate struggling children educationally. And so on. There are other off spins. They are all secondary to the gospel’s primacy, but they are not insignificant in terms of community development and justice. Most of our outreach, projects and ideas have the same types of spin off in different areas and across different demographics within the scheme. So, what do we call this?

Again, returning to Dever’s assertion that helping the needy is primarily an in house job for the church. But what about the many community people who we see daily on the scheme? They may not become members, but they certainly become an intimate part of our lives. Surely, we have a biblical responsibility to them? Let’s remember that Galatians 6:10 says, So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith. Many reformed pastors will emphasis the last three words as a proof text for Dever’s position, but the text appears to indicate helping all regardless of affiliation.

I agree, the answer to our community sin problem (its greatest need) is salvation though Christ. But, sooner or later, discipleship kicks in. So, yes, we can strengthen their Christology and biblical doctrine, but we still have to walk them through abusive relationships, sexual dysfunction, threats from drug dealers, mental health problems etc. That becomes about loving them and practically seeking, where possible, to help them relieve some of their (often) self-imposed troubles. Fighting the macro causes of their issues doesn’t even get put on the table. We just haven’t got the time here even if we had the inclination!

Reformed Churches in the UK have generally operated out of a separatist mindset in housing schemes (if they have ever really operated at all). Many have gone down the ‘Word only’ route. This has left us with some serious problems which my generation of pastors has now been handed. I want to continue this article tomorrow and look at some key issues and why I think the local church must be the centre for change in housing schemes.

Listening to Your Community

It is noticeable in Niddrie that there are many housing association groups and various other social agencies, largely staffed by outsiders, who impose their ideas and ideals on to the community without much prior discussion. It is taken for granted that the ‘professionals’ know what we need. Often, many church plants can be guilty of the same attitudes. A team can move in to a scheme with a cunning plan and yet their strategy have very little impact on the ground due to lack of research and cultural understanding. In fact, a great danger of only researching the facts and figures about an area  from government websites is that it skews our understanding of what a community needs in order to change.  A good church planter must not only research and observe, he must also listen. There are questions to be asked. For instance, who are the main players in the community? What community groups are there? Which are staffed by local people and which by outsiders? What do local people think that some of the biggest needs of the community are? As I’ve stated, it is easy to think ‘scheme’ and then come with a whole set of presuppositions which can often bare little relation to life on the inside. What do people dream about? What are their ambitions (those that have them)? What do they think that the community needs in order for it to improve? Where would they start? Here’s one of the most important ones. What could they contribute to all of these things? Robert Lupton, notes:

This is often referred to as the felt needs concept. Listening is most important, as the people of the community are the vested treasures of the future. It is important not to focus on the weaknesses or needs of a community.

That last line is interesting. Why does he emphasise this? Well, he advocates an approach to community development that helps us to try to focus on the desires of community residents, what gift sets they have, and then to think of these individuals as ‘community assets’ upon which we can focus our energies. Of course, his context is in reference to community development, but I think we can use the principle in planting.

As a planter the question becomes how we harness some of the talents of local people in tandem with the great commission. Again, it is easy to look at a scheme like Niddrie and point to 10 things that need fixing. But what we think may need fixing from the outside may not even be on the agenda of an insider. What do they think? Certainly the church can help in alleviating some of the great needs of the community but we do it a disservice if we take the burdens solely upon ourselves. In fact, we can be as guilty of weakening the community if we try to solve every problem for them. Many times in my pastoral ministry over the last decade I have had to deal with people disgruntled with ‘institutional church‘. People wanting to leave and move somewhere else, somewhere ‘better’. My answer to these individuals has always been consistent.

“You cannot change a thing by moving on from it. You can only effect real and lasting change from within. Now, what do you think needs to happen and how are you going to help me make it happen?”

I know it is not the most powerful argument ever, but if we’re going to be staying in a community and listening to it then we need to be prepared to hear a lot of talk defeatist about ‘things never changing’. We need to be helping local people see that they, under the Lordship of Christ, are the answer to their community’s problems, not solely outside agencies, and not even the church.

Of course, spiritual regeneration is the ultimate aim, but we need to be developing our listening skills in order to inform our evangelism, alongside discipleship methods that enable people not only to take responsibility for themselves and their community but empower them to get involved. We must constantly assess what we are doing and questioning whether we are moving people toward or away from dependency on anything other than Jesus Christ.


If we are going to bring about lasting change on housing schemes then everything we do must be sustainable. That’s why, as we listen, we ought to be developing ministries that will harness people in their gifting and encourage them to stay put for the benefit of all. This is hugely difficult stuff in our individualistic society. That’s why it must start within the body of Christ. If we are moving in, using our gifts, serving one another for the benefit of the whole and all the while, listening, then this is a great, living model for local people.

Listening to people. Not as easy as it sounds is it?

Part III: Developing Community Skills

Robert Lupton would call this a ‘redistribution of resources’. His logic being (albeit from a community development perspective):

1. We live in the area we are trying to reach

2. We work toward a ministry of reconciliation at a Godward level and a community level

Then (3) we are, hopefully, going to see a redistribution of community skills and resources. What exactly does he mean by this? When God’s people commit to moving back into areas of urban deprivation then they are bringing their specific gift set back in for the benefit of the wider community. They enrich it almost by default. The creative and intellectual resources which left in large numbers are now returning. Just by living in a community and trying to be a responsible neighbour, a Godly witness for Jesus, and seeking the good and betterment of the community,  we are seeing this principle in practice. If this is true for one individual, then imagine the power of a committed band of Christ followers? Imagine the influence for good they could have even in the darkest place?

So, a skilled and professional workforce re-enters the community. The creative minds are returning to make their mark. Community renewal is happening without even having to strategise it (which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do this). With new people come new relationships and new resources. New skill sets can be taught to existing community members for the benefit of all. Cultural and economic transformation can start to come about in a one to one context, where some these new skills are learned and passed on. Worldviews can be shared to bring depth, understanding and a broadening of the mind. This, incidentally, is why I believe that gentrification is not really a bad thing.

Churches can get involved by developing ministries that seek to harness the, often, latent ‘gifts’ of local people and find avenues in which they can express themselves, such as art clubs, drama groups, literacy classes, apprenticeships and work experience placements (indeed a whole host of ideas according to the particular contextual needs of the area). This is the sort of thing we are trying to encourage at NCC. We offer people chances to help with admin, office work, cooking in the cafe, basic accounting skills, computing and we have plans for a host of others with the development of our Back2Work initiative.

All these things, of course, are merely avenues for the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ which is to be proclaimed loud and clear. He will bring about the only true, lasting change, both spiritual and physical. But, we don’t hang about waiting for people to repent before we make a contribution to better our community. We do it regardless of the response to our message. It is a sign that the message we proclaim has a basis in reality by how we lives our lives and share them as a body of believers, and with our wider community.

Heady stuff which I am still digesting.

Part II: The Ministry of Reconciliation

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Cor. 5:18-21)

Jesus is in the reconciliation business, therefore the church must likewise be in the reconciliation business. Our primary concern in schemes is to see people reconciled to God. That stands above all other considerations and needs (perceived or otherwise). Yes, we want to see people get jobs, pay the bills, get up of the floor, break free from addiction (all idolatry in fact) and a multiplicity of other issues. But we want to proclaim the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ and see people respond to him in repentance and faith for the forgiveness of their sins. Forget community renewal if there is not first reconciliation between sinful men and women and a holy, just, loving & wrathful God.

Reonciliation is needed because their relationship to God is broken

We at NCC, of course, want to develop programmes and outreach that serve our community and seek to better it for the benefit of all, whether that is helping with teens on street corners, helping out on local boards, developing community outreach events and a whole host of other things. But we know for sure that if we are not driven by a deep need to see people reconciled to God first and foremost then we will quickly lose focus. Schemes are full of broken people. Beaten down by life. Beaten down by a lack of opportunity. Beaten down by prejudice. Beaten down by their own inherent sinfulness and laziness. Beaten down by bad choices. But we know they are broken because at root their relationship to God is broken. That may not be their presenting issue but if we fail to hold at the gospel to them then they will never find a real and meaningful fix to everything else.

Reconciliation is needed because their relationships with one another are broken

Feuds run deep amongst some families and have done for generations. Reconciliation is needed at a local level between people. Churches can model this by having different types of people and different classes of people working together under the gospel for the common good. One of the questions I am often asked about working in schemes is, ‘Do you think a middle class person could do effectively what you do here?’ Of course, the answer is “Yes & No”. Anybody could do what I do here: love people, treat them as equals, seek their welfare, proclaim Christ to them, and share life with them. No, in terms of natural cultural connection and instinctive evangelistic ability to contextualise on the hoof.

The point is we don’t want a church full of Mez’s any more than a church full of middle class people. We want a mix, do we not? We want the church to reflect something of the culture around us. Niddrie is not all deadbeats and drug addicts. There are hard-working, young professionals in desperate need of Christ also. Both sides are suspicious and dismissing of each other. The church has a chance to paint a counter cultural picture through our life and ministry together in community. We must continue to work hard at modelling in our church culture what this unity and reconciliation looks like. For example, ‘A ladies brunch’ is a foreign concept to Niddrie. It is a middle class expression of fellowship. We had one here recently. The key point is that Miriam, my wife, made sure to invite women who didn’t even know what the word meant. So, two groups who would never normally mix, did (at a small level). The question now is how that is reciprocated so that fellowship is not driven by one particular cultural group and there can be seen to be balance and a recognition that one way of expressing togetherness is not seen as superior to another. At a micro, communal level, this is a picture of reconciliation between people (whether they realise it or not).

The aim of community reconciliation at this level is to break down these barriers of suspicion. I’ve lost count of the number of times a local has said about X in the church, ‘Actually, he/she is alright. I thought they’d be a stuck up ******* but they’re alright.’ Or, conversely, ‘I thought I wouldn’t know what to say to Y but he/she is actually really switched on and asks intelligent questions’. Why the change of mind? Because the individual(s) crossed the cultural divide and engaged in an activity outside of their norm. This kind of conciliatory behaviour, then, must be a two-way street if it to have any lasting effect. There is huge power in the reconciliation brought to us through the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. The testimony of a life transformed by the ravages of sin is a powerful tool. That power is further intensified at the community level as they see reconciliation and barriers broken down through the community life of the church alongside other ministry outlets. Of course, this is a big topic with much to say.

To summarise: One of the most important keys to gospel ministry on the schemes is to remember to hold out the ultimate reconciliation by proclaiming the Word and modelling it at the micro level in relating to people. We’re ambassadors for Christ, not for our class and culture. We’re holding out the truth and working out together what that looks like as we respect our distinctives in Christian community and consider others better than ourselves.