Church in Yorkshire Places


Uniquely needy Yorkshire

Yorkshire is in desperate need of the gospel.  About 5.5million people live in Yorkshire and yet the percentage of those attending church at least once a month in this great county is 0.9%, with evangelicals accounting for only 0.4% of that.  And the spread of those evangelical believers is far from even across the 4 counties of Yorkshire or even within each of the counties themselves.  The statistics are skewed by the big cities; Sheffield, Leeds, York that though needy have thriving gospel churches.  Yet many rural areas and whole towns fall significantly below that figure, many are less reached than countries we send missionary stop such as Japan.  There are thriving churches here and there where the Bible is taught and churches are growing.  There are churches being planted.  But there are also many where the congregation is dwindling and face a far from certain future.  And others where they have already shut the doors and sold the property off.  It may well be in our life time that some of the towns within Yorkshire are left with no gospel witness.

This blog is an attempt to think about why?  Why is Yorkshire so needy?  What makes it so hard to reach?  How can we engage the people of Yorkshire with the great gospel of Jesus Christ?  What lessons can we learn from others?  How can we help the church in the rest of the UK to see Yorkshire as a gospel mission field?

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Listening is key to planting and continuing

Proverbs has lots to say about the value of listening; in 1v5 we are exhorted to let the wise listen and add to their learning, throughout the early chapters Solomon calls on his son to listen, 12v15 the wise listens to advice, 18v13 ‘To answer before listening – that is folly and shame.’  And so on it goes.  Listening matters.

I wonder often if we need to take that lesson to heart rather than just assuming we have listened to the community around us.  It’s worth stopping and asking ourselves; What voices do we listen to?  What sections of our communities voices do we hear most?  Which ones drown out others?  What voices in our community do we not hear?  What voices in our community are quiet and need to be intentionally sought out?

As churches, church leaders and pastors we need to be listening people.  And not just to our church members but to our communities.  The church scene is full of news and noise, some of it is helpful and some of it less so with some of it being distinctly unhelpful.  The biggest danger is that we listen to the noisiest rather than discerning and listening to the voices that actually are wisest.  In the noise of the latest strategy or ministry reform suggestion it can be hard to hear the voices of our community.

When we planted we worked hard to read everything we could get our hands on about planting, and there was lots of helpful stuff.  Mistakes others made we wanted to avoid (though we also made plenty of our own), dangers to beware and potential opportunities not to miss.  We also worked hard on the overall statistics, data shine is a helpful tool to use to get a handle on this.  But we also worked equally hard at listening to the voices in our community.  We spoke to local school teachers and headteachers, what were the issues they perceived as community opportunities and problems.  We spent time just walking the streets of our area with an ear tuned into opportunities for conversation.  We spent time at the school gate with parents, getting to know them asking them about the community and listening and learning from them.

Having pulled all that information together you then have to sift it and contextualize it.  What is helpful but needs tweaking locally?  What is different about our context?  How does the area differ from postcode to postcode?  And there you begin your real learning as you find your suppositions and preconceived ideas challenged and debunked.  From that learning you move towards launching as you think about how the priority of the gospel shapes ministry in this community.  But your learning isn’t finished, ever!  Even as you come up with your launch plan you need to keep relearning.  To keep asking, listening, and reshaping so that you take the gospel to the community without putting unnecessary barriers in the way.

Understanding Yorkshire

Contextualisation is vital.  Missionaries spend time learning a language and a culture so that they can share the gospel effectively and plant God honouring churches that disciple people well given their particular context.  I wonder sometimes whether we tend to forget that lesson in the UK.  Simply assuming because something worked somewhere else it will work here in just the same way.  But such an approach is dangerous and flawed because our regions have distinct flavours, histories and influences.

In fact it is one of my concerns as I look at the church in Yorkshire, the county with the lowest church attendance in the country, a church attendance on a par with Japan.  We simply haven’t spent enough time thinking about how we reach Yorkshire people with the gospel.  We have tended to just do what everyone else is doing.  Partly that is skewed by church planting in university towns where the majority of students and a significant chunk of the general populace are not from Yorkshire.  Sheffield, Leeds, and York are not the norm in Yorkshire, though I wonder if even there churches are reaching the indigenous Yorkshire men and women or just the interlopers?

So what would it look like to contextualise?  Yorkshire is not the South of England.  Yorkshire people don’t think like people from the home counties.  So how do we reach them with the gospel?  What would it look like to contextualise?  To do Church in Yorkshire Places?  Here are a few thoughts:

A Passion for Jesus
Middle Class (Southern) Evangelicalism tends to prize rational argument over passion.  Yet spend time with Yorkshire people and you realise they are passionate and driven.  A raised voice in conversation is not a sign of anger or loss of control or rationality but of concern and love and commitment.  Our passion for Jesus must match that of the fan for his club, or the Yorkshire man for his county.  Preach and proclaim the gospel with passion.

Working class mentality
If you ask a Yorkshire man what class he is he will look at you like you’ve gone mad.  What class would you want to be, ‘Of course I’m working class I’m from Yorkshire.’  Being a Yorkshire man or woman defines your class not your occupation and it is historical not changeable.  Many have been to uni and have traditionally middle class jobs but still define themselves as being working class, in fact many will resent the implication that they are middle class.  They have working class values and virtues and we need to address those and think through how they have been shaped by gospel values, and how sin has warped them not simply value, assume, address and preach to middle class issues.

Local not national
Yorkshire people are passionate about being from Yorkshire, what other county devised it’s own medal table for the Olympics.  They care passionately about local issues.  It is not that national or international issues don’t matter but that local comes first.  How do we in our engagement, evangelism, preparation, and preaching reflect that?

A suspicion of interlopers
There is an ingrained suspicion of outsiders, especially if you speak with a posh accent (unless you are from Harrogate).  We have to work hard to overcome this, how? By accepting, loving and engaging with Yorkshire and it’s quirks and eccentricities.  And we must commit to long term listening engagement and friendship with our communities if we are an interloper.  Listening matters, otherwise we reinforce the idea that we arrogantly presume to come in with all the answers.  We don’t.  We have loads to learn and value and we will be richer for it.

Defined by hardship
Many communities in Yorkshire have had it hard.  Do your research?  Read local history about the miners strike and the loss of other traditional industries and understand how this has shaped, and is still shaping, communities.  Read local history and talk to and listen to local people about the church in that area.  People tend to define themselves by struggle and hardship.  Which in turn can produce a can’t do attitude and or a resentment of others who have ‘had it easy’.  In some cases we will find church has added to this hardship.  We need to wrestle with how the gospel addresses and reshapes this?  How do we plant and pastor churches that reshape this with gospel realism and thankfulness?

Mistrust of big project/society/organisations
Many have been let down by big promises made by big organisations or left disenchanted by unfulfilled promises and visions.  This leads to a sense of mistrust of the big and of grandiose visions and plans.  We need to plant and pastor churches that overcome this by being realistic, only promising what we can do and by being quick to admit mistakes if and when we have let people down.  Working hard to win back trust through sheer love and commitment.

This is only scratching the surface of what is a very complex issue but one we need to face and think more deeply about as we pray and plan to evangelise Yorkshire for the glory of God by planting churches across this great county.

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