The poverty revolution

Back in 2017, Bishop Philip North shared that renewal will come from the margins, and the forgotten places. It was such a powerful challenge and too good not to share with you here on Proximity.

 

Poverty Proximity Principle
An image of Philip North Philip North
5th June 2024 5 minute read
Man talking into microphone

Is the decline of the church inevitable?

At the start of Jesus’ ministry, in Luke 4, he stands up in the synagogue and quotes Isaiah 61. ‘I have come to proclaim good news the poor,’ he says – and if we read on in Isaiah, we read about those who will ‘rebuild the ruined walls’ and ‘restore the shattered cities.’ Who are they? It is the poor of this world – not the rich – who will bring about the restoration Jesus is talking about. 

Renewal will come from the margins and from the broken, abandoned places that people want to forget. As I scour through the pages of church history, I cannot find a single renewal movement that has not begun amongst the poor. There simply isn’t one.

But look at where St Francis began in the 11th century. Look at the Acts of the Apostles – where did they begin? Look at Wesley, look at Newman – they went to the forgotten, marginalised areas.

So how do we achieve it?

We need a revolution

Jesus spent his life with marginalised women, voiceless children, publicans, tax collectors, the crippled, the lame, the poor, the forgotten and the oppressed. And from there he started a movement which utterly transformed what it means to be human. 

It is crucial that we do not spiritualise the word ‘poor.’ It means the poor – and we do not get to escape by changing it to mean spiritual or emotional poverty. 

You see, when we start with the poor, the rich will catch on. It works that way round, regardless of what the world tells you.

Look at the music people listen to. Look at the clothes they wear. Look at our architecture. Look at sport. Look at political ideas. They all emerge from poorer communities and then the rich catch on. And what is true of our cultural life is true also of our faith. We do not need a strong urban church just to have a strong urban church. We need a strong urban church to renew the whole church, to renew a nation.

What would a church be like that left the poor behind? It would be financially viable, but it would not be the church of Jesus Christ. It would be a smug Christian support group.

The revolution that starts in the urban church will not stop there. It is about the whole church.

Revolutions need a plan

It is not about a cookie-cutter strategy, but I think our revolution will feature four things. 

Firstly, it will be about belonging before it is about belief. We will build communities that are invitational, relational and with a strong ability to listen. We will worry about belonging first and belief will follow.

Secondly, we will see local leaders raised up where we might least expect them. Jesus took an unlikely packed lunch in John 6 and fed five thousand: when it seems like there is not enough, God makes it enough. Local leaders who understand their community and who speak their language are at the heart of our revolution.

Thirdly, we will share the gospel with simplicity and clarity, and we will expect people to respond to it. Our local leaders will put it into words that people understand. They will invite people to real community and be clear about the hope that they carry.

And finally, we will marry proclamation and service. Often, we can focus on one or the other, either delivering huge evangelistic initiatives or doing great social work. But unless we can do both together, we have missed the point. To proclaim without serving is empty hypocrisy. To serve without proclaiming means that we are subjecting people to the greatest deprivation of all, which is to be deprived of hearing the saving news of God in Jesus Christ.

Above all: prayer

Without prayer we are as much use to God as an ashtray on a motorbike. The communities we form must be rooted in prayer. 

Not just spontaneous prayer, when it feels good. People often say to me, ‘My life is prayer. I am always praying. I see a lovely tree and I pray. I pray when I am driving…’ How can you pray when you are driving?! I once tried to pray while I was driving, and I nearly crashed the minibus and nearly killed eight people. 

There must be a discipline to our prayer, time set aside to it, routines that are established and that we are accountable for. If you are involved in urban ministry there will be times when it is incredibly tough. There will be times when your plans fall flat. Only prayer can give you that courage and determination to keep going. Walk the streets, pray the streets. Be seen praying in your communities. Without the fuel of prayer, it will come to nothing.

The inevitable revolution

When I was at theological college – which I hated every second of – I learnt a lot about heresy. We learnt about Arianism and modalism and Gnosticism and Pelagianism and Donatism. What we did not learn is the heresy that is most prevalent in western Europe today. 

It is the belief that the decline of Christianity in western Europe is inevitable, and that all we can do is ensure that the body is perfectly arranged in the coffin.

Look around the world – it is an age of faith. People are giving their lives to Jesus in unprecedented numbers. Yet in our strange cultural bubble we have bought into the lie that church decline is inevitable.

It is not. Renewal is inevitable. Because Jesus is Lord. That is the one objective truth. 

Do you know from where renewal will come? It will come from the margins, from the edges, from the forgotten places. 

We need a revolution. You are the revolutionaries. Let us go and start.

Written by

Philip North

Philip North is the Bishop of Blackburn in the Anglican Diocese which serves most of the county of Lancashire. He began ministry in the Diocese of Durham, serving outer estate parishes in Sunderland and Hartlepool, before spending six years ministering to pilgrims to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham as Priest Administrator. He returned to parochial ministry as Team Rector of the Parish of Old St Pancras, serving a large area of North West London around Camden Town. He was consecrated Bishop of Burnley in February 2015 and translated to the See of Blackburn in 2023.

He has a strong interest in issues around poverty and social justice and in the vitality of the urban church. He is a member of the Company of Mission Priests, a dispersed community who live to a rule in order to focus their lives on the mission of the church, especially amongst the poor.

An image of Philip North
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