My dad has been a bricklayer for over 40 years. Snow, rain or shine he leaves at the crack of dawn, puts in a full shift ‘on the trowel’ and gets back for tea. A lifetime of this has left him with cracked hands and in need of a replacement ball for his shoulder joint. It’s a hard life.
In Brazil we worked with children as young as 5 years old who sold chewing gum to make ends meet and, when that failed, and it did, were pushed into prostitution by unscrupulous adults. It was a horrendous life, and still is for untold millions.
I have been spending some time on the road recently promoting the work and ministry of 20schemes. We seemed to have gained an audience and it appears that God is using our ministry to fire up interest around the globe in what we are seeking to do for His glory. One thing, however, picks away at me as I travel and speak to church planters, pastors, leaders and lay people. It is simply this. The misconception that somehow what we are doing here in the schemes of Scotland is particularly brave or difficult and requires some sort of super human faith and character. Like it is actually hard graft.
There seems to be some sort of (urban?) myth that working with the poor is especially ‘hard’. As if somehow in the pantheon of Christian ministry ours is out on its own as the difficult one. That, somehow, our kind of ministry needs your prayers more than other kinds of ministries. That our workers are ‘hardier’ than any others. That to live and work in a poor area is a larger sacrifice than to live and work in a more upmarket area. I don’t know if it is because of how we communicate the needs. I don’t know if it’s because of the stories we sometimes tell of individuals saved out of frightening circumstances.
For some reason, I noticed it more on my latest travels when (almost) person after person, particularly pastors, would pat me on the back and say something like, “Well done mate. I couldn’t do what you do.” Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate the sentiment and it’s nice to get a pat on the back once in a while. But here’s my dilemma. It’s not really all that hard. It’s not even all that difficult. Embarrassingly, it is very easy to live and work in a housing scheme. In fact, it’s a bit of a doddle. So, I feel like I need to officially come out as a pastoral fraud. As I say to my friends in non scheme areas: “Well done to you mate. In many ways yours is actually the harder ministry.”
When I listen to men battling away around Europe (and the states) in well off areas it makes me break out in a cold sweat. How the heck do you evangelise in an area where everybody has a decent paid job, a nice place to live and possibly a car (or two) on the drive? How do you break through the intellectual pride of a worldview that thinks religion is beneath them and that science has all the answers? How do you witness in an area where the average house price is over £250k? How do you talk to a guy who feels no need for Christ because he is distracted by his materialism? How do you make it work in an area filled with nice, law abiding citizens, who don’t cheat on their wives, beat their kids and spend their days stoned on the sofa watching reality TV? Now that’s hard. That’s more than hard. That, my friends, is brutal.
So, the next time you’re tempted to think of 20schemes as being a ‘hard’ ministry, please don’t. Don’t get me wrong; there are difficulties but nothing as hard as many of my brothers face in more (so-called) ‘well to do’ areas in the UK and Europe. In cities and countries where less than 2% are Christian. 20schemes is a ministry of necessity not danger. It is a ministry to get the gospel back into schemes that have been left behind by a culturally middle class Christianity. We’re not after churches marketed solely for the poor. We’re after churches that love the gospel and reflect life within these needy areas. We want to see the city worker and the reformed addict saved, discipled and serving together in the life and ministry of the local church. We want the guy from the schemes to have the same opportunities to become a leader as his educated neighbour.
On a schemes, I can have a conversation about Jesus any day of the week. I can call a man a sinner and he will probably agree without it denting his pride (too much). I rarely meet atheists in schemes. People here tend to have more time to stop and chat. They have more of a sense of community. They will come to an event knowing you will preach at them and they won’t blink. Of course, there are many who don’t. But my point is that we operate within a culture that is incredibly open to the gospel. Any hostility here is to the church as an institution because it is seen as a posh person’s club. The hardest part comes in discipleship and discipline. So, in effect, we have it easier going in the front door than many of our middle class counterparts. It’s just keeping the house tidy once we’re in that’s the problem.
What’s so hard about living for Jesus in a culture where everybody knows everybody and where you see your neighbour every day of the week? What’s hard about sitting in a community cafe for a buttie and a chat at a moment’s notice? What’s hard about popping in to your pal’s house for a brew any time you’re passing by (Yes, really – without an appointment!)? What’s hard about not needing to have ‘house/life/small groups’ because we see each other so much anyway and it just happens naturally? Nothing my friends. Nothing at all.
Hard is trying to build authentic community among a scattered congregation. Hard is trying to foster meaningful relationships in a diarised culture. Hard is trying to engage in spiritual conversations with disinterested individuals. Hard is not having the freedom to pop into your friends house uninvited because it might not be polite.
So, please, let’s not compare our ministries on who has it toughest. I promise not to if you don’t. Let’s just get behind one another in concerted prayer and support. Let’s get rid of this spiritual one up-manship and face the facts that it’s all a privilege anyway. We serve the King of the Universe. Just let that sink in. We get to do what we love AND get a sweet reward at the end of it. Much better than arthritic fingers and a worn away ball joint from a lifetime of laying bricks.
Let’s remind ourselves often of Paul’s words to the church in Colossians Chapter 3:
23 Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, 24 knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.