Truth and the Practice of Urban Mission in London

What is the truth about urban Mission in London?  How successful are we being?  Are these the kind of questions which we should be asking in the first place?  Is it even possible to ask them -- and when we do ask them are we seeking the truth or just an answer which is convenient to our plans?  To begin let us explore the difficult question of church attendance in London.

Counting churchgoers

One of my early experiences of church history was exploring with John Kent, a famously sceptical historian of the modern church, the 1851 religious census.  This alerted me to the difficulties associated with church statistics -- on a par, perhaps, with the depressingly unrecognised problems with crime statistics.

Religious censuses have received a boost recently from the faith question in the 2001 census and also the work of the English Church census.  The English Church census is interesting for London Christians for it suggests that London is the only place in the country where the church is consistently growing.  This would appear to be because of the growth of immigrant and black majority churches.  This does not surprise any of us living in Hackney where we are very aware of the growth of new churches, and indeed the growth of mainstream churches through the growing number of African attenders.  But although the census news is positive for London I do wonder exactly what it means.  A number of stories come to mind.  

Firstly I know of a large successful church which had become firmly embedded in the Caribbean community of its neighbourhood.  Its membership remained static at 200 but this was not by chance.  The minister had decided that this number was the most appropriate for the church -- it enabled them to keep their own minister but not to have to pay too large a quota; therefore when the number fell below 200 he simply talked to a few attenders and they became members.  This kind of gerrymandering of membership strikes me as being far from uncommon -- membership figures are not just an abstract figure but a way of managing your relationship with the wider denomination.  This is particularly easy to do in inner-city environment where relationships are more important than joining clubs and institutions.  Secondly I am perplexed about the figures for black majority churches.  The project for which I work -- the CANDL project, has been one of the pioneers of directories of churches and we have done a lot of work trying to assess the number of black majority churches in Hackney and TowerHamlets.  It is an extremely difficult task only achievable by intensive leg work on the ground.  The number of churches is so great and their mutability so significant that it is extraordinarily taxing to get a fix even on the number of churches, let alone the membership or attendance.  In the light of this experience how the English Church census comes up with a figure for BME churches which is even remotely accurate is quite beyond me[1].

2001 census

It is not surprising that those of us from Inner London have questions about the English Church census for statisticians are beginning to have serious questions about the gold standard of demographic statistics -- the 10 yearly census.  Again let me share a few stories.


The 2001 census with its new religious question came up with a figure of about 10,000 Jews in Hackney -- or 5% of the population, a relatively high figure.  But for those of us who knows Stamford Hill it is a surprising figure and indeed in talking with the Orthodox Jewish community in Hackney I have found that they have challenged the figure.  Within the Jewish community there is a memory that census figures were used by the Nazis to identify Jews and they, therefore, avoid answering the question.  The true figure for Jews in Hackney is almost certainly over 20,000 -- a vast difference from the published figure.  Another story is even more troubling.  Some years ago I was working in Bayswater with the census figures and was struck by the high levels of mobility in the area -- over 20% had not been living in the area in the previous year.  I happened to talk to a man whose daughter had been one of the census enumerators in Bayswater and he told a story of how difficult it was to get any kind of response from many properties in the area.  This caused me to wonder, in mobile areas like the inner-city where there is a distrust of authority, how reliable is the census? My concerns were recently reinforced by a Radio 4 programme on the census.  The 1991 census produced a perplexingly low figure for young men.  It was assumed that the poll tax which had recently been introduced caused more young men to avoid being on the census and so their number was artificially increased by the census authorities.  Further research, however, indicates that in fact many young men have left the country and are living a nomadic existence in places like Amsterdam.  Furthermore interviews with young men in Moss Side, Manchester indicated their extreme antipathy to be included in any census.  People are beginning to wonder just how useful the census now is.

It is hard to overemphasise the serious implications of this issue.  Increasingly all government policy is based on census figures.  It is absolutely central to all government initiatives such as neighbourhood renewal and is combined with other statistics such as the notoriously unreliable crime statistics to produce a plethora of 'facts' from which to develop policy, floor targets and outcome orientated interventions.  But inner-city communities resist this kind of numbering and in a throwback to the contentious origins of the census seem to be finding ways of avoiding the counters.

Urban mission stories and truth

But if the numerical foundation of urban mission is questionable maybe we can find a different kind of truth in the telling of urban mission stories.  Maybe.

Funding applications

Many urban mission stories are told in response to demands from prospective funders.  Most of the time people don't have the time to tell their stories but if it means they can get some money for doing their work they are more likely to knuckle down.  But of course the stories have a particular twist.  A lot of money is spent and earned telling people how to fill in funding applications and it strikes me that most funding applications are as unreliable as the hagiographies of fourth century desert fathers.  Not without a certain central core of truth but very much presented for the benefit of the reader rather than a disinterested concern for the truth. 

These difficulties have been increased by the growing concern for measuring success.  Increasingly the necessity is not to do a good piece of work but to do something that can produce the right figures, obviously there is some kind of connection between the two factors but it is not a necessary connection.  Producing the right figures can be done in all kinds of ways and it is quite clear that one of the pernicious consequences of the obsession with measuring success is that people are getting better at lying and massaging the figures.

Publicity material

If stories are not told for funding applications then they are generally told for publicity purposes.  This again has its problems.  Understandably people want to present a positive and successful story.  Something which is not too long and is not too complicated.  I had the opportunity some years ago to write a series of case studies of faith based initiatives for a prominent national agency.  I was excited by the opportunity and did, what I thought, was a good piece of work telling a detailed but manageable story of these interesting projects.  They have never seen the light of day.  I was never told that there was a problem with them but I was paid off and the work was buried.  Seeing subsequent publications from the same agency I realise that the complexity of my stories was just not what was wanted.  Something positive and uplifting was needed, not my complex stories of struggle, disappointment and uncertain success.

Success through struggle (and failure stories)

My observation is that even when stories are told in more detail they follow the familiar pattern of the success through struggle story.  Struggle and difficulty is obviously appropriate for an inner-city story (!), but again there is no market for stories of failure and they only occasionally appear.  The best source of stories of failure and disappointment, in my experience, is the work of the Urban Theology Unit where there is a significant record of ordinary stories which occasionally are published.  These records are an invaluable source, far more valuable than the mountains of success stories and publicity material with which we get swamped every day.

Contemporary urban Christians and truth telling

Truth is not easy in modern urban London.  Facts are far less easy to come by than government ministers and urban planners would like to think.  The stories we tell are also less than reliable.  And we as Christians are not insulated from these problems.  In fact, if Callum Brown is to be believed, the whole enterprise of urban mission is rooted in the half-truths of Thomas Chalmers.  Chalmers was a Scottish minister who told lurid tales of the urban poverty and irreligion in order to get funding for his early urban initiatives and thereby encouraged the myth of urban secularity.  We are still tempted to play the same game.

Our postmodern world, recognising the difficulty in telling the truth, tends to sit easily with half-truths and manipulation.  After all if the truth is so difficult to grasp why bother?  Why not use half-truths in order to achieve what might be good ends?  Jesus does, however, call us to follow the way of truth embodied in his own person.  This truth, of course, is not enlightenment truth -- truth achieved by measuring and counting.  In the Bible truth is much more about trustworthiness than it is about the quest for a purely intellectual truth.  It is found in that quality of God, and hopefully human beings, which inspires trust and confidence.  This is a truth, in the midst of all postmodern doubt, that it is surely worth us aspiring to in our urban mission.  But how might this be worked out in practice?

Don't get hung up on the numbers

There is an interesting and obscure story about David when he tried to conduct a census of Israel.  God forbade this exercise in enumeration but David went ahead with dire consequences.  This is probably connected with the danger of pride -- David wanting to find out how great and powerful he had become.  So often our counting of church members has the same dubious genesis.  Of course counting can be useful but we need to be aware of our motives, wise about whether we are counting the right thing and honest about the limits of the quantifiable.

Listen to the reality on the ground

Often counting is a way of avoiding the necessity of actually getting down to talking to people at the bottom.  It is so much simpler to have numbers to play with rather than take on the difficult task of listening to the complexities of real stories.  Organisations like Church Action on Poverty have done an excellent job in enabling the stories of ordinary people to be heard.  I believe churches are excellently placed to engage in this kind of work but too often we only listen to the powerful voices in our congregations rather than those on the margins or outside the holy club.  We also need to be careful about exploiting people's stories -- if people are going to be asked to tell their stories who is going to benefit from it?

Avoid publicity and self-promotion

I love the story of the Desert Father who was visited by a wealthy patron.  He hid in the desert and met the visitor by accident who asked him where the renowned Father was, the monk immediately started insulting the esteemed father saying that he was a fraud and best avoided.  Humility was central to the spirituality of the Desert Fathers, they were terrified of pride and did everything they could to avoid being exalted.  But their influence and reputation only grew, for people recognised their ferocious authenticity.  Perhaps we in the urban wilderness could return to such a spirituality of humility.

Strive to be trustworthy and reliable members of the community

In the midst of the corruption and empire building which we so often experience in urban London there is a desperate need for trustworthy and reliable institutions and community leaders.  There are times when churches are able to play this role -- such as in conducting funerals for victims of gang violence and easing intercommunity tensions.  I believe if we were more committed to biblical truth, that is being trustworthy people in whom the community put its trust, rather than scrabbling at the table of neighbourhood renewal along with everyone else, an important new role for the urban church would emerge.


[1] My questions are reinforced by a letter in the Church Times which castigated the English Church Census for its failures in regards to the Orthodox Church in England.  The census obviously has extreme problems in working outside the traditional mainstream (Orthodox count is badly awry Church Times 6 October 2006)