The Gospel Coalition



Tim Chester | Review by: Mez McConnell

Tim Chester. Unreached: Growing Churches in Working-Class and Deprived Areas. Nottingham, UK: Inter-Varsity Press. 192 pp. $14.99.

As the subtitle suggests, Tim Chester’s latest book is about growing churches in working class and deprived areas. Early on he admits it’s “not the last word on the topic.” But it’s certainly a decent stab at the first word.

Given the dearth of material available to those of us engaged in this kind of ministry in the UK, it’s easy to see why Chester wrote Unreached. The early chapters are dedicated to setting the scene for contextualization and culture within working class and deprived areas—and aiming to clarify loaded terms such as “working class” and “middle class.” The bottom line, for me at least, is that the UK’s class system is more about worldview than anything else. As Chester rightly concludes, “It is a matter of moral indifference whether you prefer pie ‘n’ peas or feta salad” (33). The point, he argues, is that people of all classes should be changing whatever aspects of their cultural values conflict with the gospel of the Lord Jesus.

More Missiologist than Full-Time Practitioner

The early chapters of Unreached are its strongest, probably because Chester— pastor of The Crowded House in Sheffield and associate director of The Porterbrook Seminary—is writing as a missiologist rather than as a full-time practitioner of this kind of ministry (most of his practical advice is from third-party sources). For instance, he speaks of “imbalanced mutual adaptation” (35), which means the dominant culture must work hard to avoid overpowering the church. I agree with him theologically, of course, but am afraid this is sounder on paper than realistic in practice. I wish, then, he’d proceeded to discuss how middle-class churches could actually accomplish this goal. Most congregations in the UK, after all, are largely middle-class. Therefore, the poor and deprived have been doing most of the accommodating and transcending to the middle-class world in the broader evangelical church.

Chester’s discussion of the culture of working class and deprived areas is very helpful for middle-class, cultural outsiders. He touches on many insightful points, such as the phenomenon of “social lift” and the option of “social drop.” Though not new, both ideas must be considered as we discuss ways forward for ministry in areas of urban deprivation. How do we stop indigenous converts from moving “up and out” in an effort to better themselves? How do we encourage more prosperous believers to consider downsizing their lives to move into areas of urban deprivation? Chester rightly reminds us people in housing estates (“schemes”) feel “trapped”; our aim, then, should be to encourage a view of the faith that’s not “become like us and move up,” but “become like Jesus and stay put” (my words).

Chester then lists several attributes he feels reflect the culture of poor areas, some of which are right on the money. For example:

People in deprived areas often see the world in black and white terms. They will take you literally. People interpret, “Ring me any time” as giving them permission to phone you at two in the morning. But you can also readily tap into this worldview. People will not be fazed if you give them a straight answer to a question like, “Will people go to hell?” (59)

Motivation for Love

At one point Chester writes, “You don’t need a degree to work in urban contexts. You don’t need a theory of contextualisation. You need love. Love is the New Testament’s core missiological principle.” I know at this point all the nice, middle-classy people will be weeping and agreeing with him, but I’d like to add one slight—but supremely important—caveat. We need to make sure love for God is our primary, all-surpassing motivation for ministry in these areas, not love for poor people. Getting these two confused has caused all sorts of pastoral problems over the years from well-meaning people wanting to work in impoverished contexts.

In Chester’s section on “key themes for working class areas,” I didn’t see much that can’t be true across all classes. There is a helpful emphasis on two particularly key themes, God’s sovereignty and victim mentality, the latter being particularly prevalent in many poorer areas. Again, I think Chester missed an opportunity for discussing these themes in more depth with greater application for ministry practitioners. Perhaps walking us through some real-life examples in a simple biblical manner would have been more useful. Sovereignty in particular is a massively important doctrine for ministry among the poor and deprived. It gives us a great sense of pastoral hope (not directly mentioned in Unreached) and greater zeal for our evangelistic efforts.

Further, Chester deals with evangelism under the categories of engage, enter, explore, expose, and evangelize. I prefer creation-fall-redemption-consummation as a model for talking to people and hearing their stories. This section of the book felt weaker than the rest. Chester hints at the suggestion that Facebook gossip is just an inner housing estate problem. But these things arent unique to our people; theyre problematic across the social strata. What we need is a greater understanding of the human condition and how to apply the gospel to all people—whether they smoke weed or spend too much with caramelized lattes. Unreached never quite got around to explaining the gospel in a transparent fashion. Themes such as the heart and idolatry are thankfully discussed, though I wish they’d have been done so in far greater practical depth, seeing as theyre such important issues.

Area of Failure

I was glad to see the issue of growing leaders addressed, since this is a massive area of failure for churches in the UK. Ministry to poor people is often patronizing and paternalistic—no matter how well meaning. This topic warrants a book of its own, of course, but at least the conversation is open. Churches in poor areas need to develop in-house training programs to grow the next generation of indigenous leaders. Chester offers ten principles I hope can be expanded in the years to come when more of us practitioners have learned from our mistakes and have something useful to say.

I was also happy Chester highlighted expository preaching, which must retain a central place so long as preachers are engaging and not just transferring information. Application is vital. I disagree strongly with the common assumption that the poor don’t like Bible study. Quite the opposite. They like opening up the Bible; indeed, on our scheme people get annoyed if we don’t do so quickly enough! Again, the leader is key here. If he or she communicates the idea that it’s going to be laborious, then it will be. But we should be creating a culture of expectation that God will speak to us though his Word.

Finally, I must draw attention to the following statement:

One church leader commented that he has counted the cost of raising his daughters on an [poor] estate, and he accepts the possibility that one of them may be pregnant before she is twenty. (158)

Not only is this likely the most offensive comment I’ve ever read in a Christian book, it’s indicative of the attitude many indigenous converts feel cultural outsiders bring to our areas. Now I’m certain whoever said it didn’t intend any offense, but it exposes the deep-seated paternalistic and (often unthinkingly) superior posture of many cultural outsiders coming into poor areas. As a young pastor, for instance, I was told I’d have a “one-month trial” in my new church parsonage “to see if you can keep it clean.” Reflect on the implications of that statement!

Middle-class girls get knocked up, too. Middle-class people in nice suburban houses take drugs, commit crimes, and cheat on their spouses. Needless to say, robust cross-cultural training is vital for any cultural outsider desiring to bring the gospel to a new place. And what a need we have for more indigenous voices from deprived areas to contribute to this church planting/revitalization conversation until those with specific cultural insight—and on-the-ground experience—lead it.

I enjoyed Unreached. It had many good things to say. I’ve bought copies for my ministry team and we’re going to study and discuss it together. Though I’m not sure it sufficiently addressed the subject of “growing churches in working class and deprived areas,” Chester has certainly done us a favor. We should be thankful for his willingness to bring deprived areas into the evangelical arena for more thoughtful discussion as believers from all cultural divides partner to reach our deprived areas with the good news of Jesus and to establish healthy, gospel-centered churches.

Mez McConnell has been the senior pastor of Niddrie Community Church since September 2007. Prior to that he spent four years with UFM Worldwide working with street children in Brazil and planted the Good News Church in one of the most deprived parts of the country. He has been involved in full-time pastoral ministry since 1999 and has written Preparing for Baptism: A Personal Diary (Grace Publications Trust) and Is There Anybody Out There?: A Journey from Despair to Hope (Christian Focus). He is also the director of 20Schemes, a new church planting and revitalization initiative in Scotland whose aim is to plant healthy, gospel-centered churches in 20 of the country’s most deprived housing communities. Mez is married to Miriam and has two daughters, Keziah and Lydia.

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