Hidden Gems

Picture a small church with under 15 members, the pastor is working class, as are a couple of the core team members. They have a packed program during the week and are constantly looking for more people to help out with the busy workload. This church not only has a desire to reach working class people, but also wants to train and disciple working-class people for future ministry and service. Imagine that a young woman from the local estate starts attending – she’s professing faith but is still uncertain on some theological issues and rough around the edges. She knows the community and has no problems sharing her faith. She might not be a ready-made female gospel worker, but there’s definitely future potential. The question is: why did one of the elders not see that future potential until it was pointed out to him?

The question is: why did one of the elders not see that future potential until it was pointed out to him? Click To Tweet

Of course, this small church is real – it’s New Life Church Middlesbrough, and the short-sighted elder was me. I’m middle-class, but I live on a housing estate, have a desire to see the church here grow and want to see local people develop and be a key part of that. I want to see a diverse church which reflects the local community. This post isn’t talking about why diversity is important – there are plenty of blogs elsewhere that do that. I want to consider how it is that I managed to overlook somebody. It’s not like I wasn’t looking out for future gospel-workers, and it’s not that I don’t think local people should be involved, so how did I not see this woman’s potential until it was pointed out to me? And if somebody can fall through the cracks in our small church then I’m sure it’s happening in other churches too. So why is it that our churches are crying out for diversity, yet we fail to spot potential in people who aren’t like us? Why is it that, even with the best of intentions, working-class people can still get passed over for ministry opportunities, training and funding?

Of course, this small church is real – it’s New Life Church Middlesbrough, and the short-sighted elder was me. Click To Tweet

Diversity has become a bit of a buzzword today, yet every area of society seems to be severely lacking in it. This is most clearly seen in the world of politics, where, in spite of constant calls for diversity, all politicians seem to be cut from the same cloth. The best jobs are handed out to those who went to the right schools and universities, a few opportunities are handed out to those who learn to conform and fit in, and those on the outside struggle to forge a career. In the footballing world, there’s constantly talk about why BME players never get coaching or managing opportunities – most people in the sport are keen for greater diversity, but opportunities almost always get given to those who are like the power-holders. Even in the world of entertainment, the stars of tomorrow seem to be carbon copies of today’s stars. Could it be a problem in the church as well? Could it be that we’re eager to see diversity, keen to see people involved in ministry from all backgrounds, yet there’s something stopping it from happening?

In his lecture “The Inner Ring”, C.S. Lewis starts by talking about the character Boris Dubretskoy from War and Peace. Young Boris learns that in the army there is both the formal structure made up of officers, lieutenants and corporals, but there is a second, unspoken organisation which transcends all of that, where some people somehow belong and some people simply don’t. ‘You are never formally and explicitly admitted by anyone. You discover gradually, in almost indefinable ways, that it exists and that you are outside it; and then later, perhaps, that you are inside it. There are what correspond to passwords, but they too are spontaneous and informal. A particular slang, the use of particular nicknames, an allusive manner of conversation, are the marks. But it is not constant. It is not easy, even at a given moment, to say who is inside and who is outside. Some people are obviously in and some are obviously out, but there are always several on the border-line.’

Could this be the problem in our churches? Just as Boris learnt that the army had two systems, do we need to see that our churches have two systems – the official one with pastors, elders, deacons and members, and a second one with those who are on the inside, and those who aren’t. One system based on 1 Timothy 3 and our church constitution and our membership rules, then a second system based on your education level, your accent, your dress-sense, your class, your salary, your ability to make small-talk, and a whole bunch of other unwritten rules.

Could this be the problem in our churches? Just as Boris learnt that the army had two systems, do we need to see that our churches have two systems Click To Tweet

For those on the outside, the unwritten rules of church can seem overwhelming. Some people end up leaving churches altogether, disillusioned with the cliques and culture. Others learn how to play the game, they assimilate and eventually get opportunities to train, serve and even lead churches. Then there are those outsiders who stick around but never really reach their potential. Wouldn’t it be better if those people got the same opportunities as the people in the inner ring? In our context, wouldn’t it be better if people from working class backgrounds got the same opportunities as those from the middle class?

For those who are on the inside (which I guess includes me), it’s easy to overlook people. I don’t think this is malicious, or even intentional. Nobody wants cronyism; everybody wants diversity. The problem is one of trust. It will feel inevitably feel risky to include people who are not naturally like us. It’s easy to become over-protective with our ministries. Delegating can be difficult even to “a safe pair of hands”, but if we’re going to see our churches grow, then we need to be willing to trust people who are different to us. We need to not dismiss people simply because they have children, or they’re a certain age, or they’re single, or they’re unemployed, or they have a chequered past, or whatever it is.

Let’s be clear. I’m not saying we discard godly character in our quest for greater diversity. It’s important that those who serve are also pursuing holiness. The problem is not that we’re sticking too rigidly to biblical standards, but that we are not sticking to them closely enough. I think that we have added our own cultural standards to the Bible’s list. Do we expect that Sunday school teachers should have a degree? Should only professionals distribute communion? Does a deacon need to wear a suit and tie? If you’re looking to train up someone to preach, why is the lawyer in your congregation any more qualified than the plumber? Could somebody with a history of drug abuse be your next worship leader? Of course, we need our church members to live holy lives, but I think we’ve added many subtle, unwritten, cultural qualifications. Biblical standards are important – let’s stick to those, rather than passing over people simply because they don’t fit the mould.

Biblical standards are important – let’s stick to those, rather than passing over people simply because they don’t fit the mould. Click To Tweet

You might be thinking “That’s all fine, but we don’t have anyone in our congregation like that. I’d love to have people from different backgrounds either serving now or being trained up to do stuff in the future, but we just don’t have anyone.” The likelihood is you do. There are some people in your congregation who are passed over – unintentionally perhaps, but I’m sure there will be some hidden gems. Our church is tiny and I still managed to overlook someone. I work with people who are culturally different to me every day and I still missed one. We’re even actively looking for people to serve and be trained up, and I failed to see someone’s potential. If people can slip through the net in our church, then there are almost certainly some in your congregation. Who are the hidden gems in your church?

Author: Nathan Young

Nathan Young is originally from Cheltenham and moved to New Life Church, Middlesbrough after studying and working in Aberdeen. Nathan has recently studied for a Masters in Theology at Durham University and is training as assistant pastor

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