Rural mission in the Vale of Dibley

england-2960807_1920A couple of weeks ago, Helen and I spent a pleasant Saturday afternoon touring South Oxfordshire looking for wedding reception venues as we start to plan our daughter’s wedding. Sitting at home that Saturday evening, I somewhat naively put up the following tweet which soon gained a life of its own.

Visited four lovely village halls today in S Oxon and West Berks. How wonderful it would be if each of them had a gospel church planted in them in the next 10 years. This is a big area of need, and influence. The movers and shakers live in these villages.

Steve Kneale picked up on it and blogged about the final phrase, and then some local Anglican clergy in the Thames Valley weighed in, the thread developed a life of its own, and I was accused of arrogance. So, a couple of weeks later, after a chest infection as well as a trip out of the UK, I want to explain what I was on about.

Villages are sneered at by the urban elite. They are still seen as places where locals marry their cousins, children are born with six fingers, everyone speaks with an impenetrable yokel accent and people have the intellectual capacity of Alice Tinker from The Vicar of Dibley. Villages are seen as backwaters by many young ministers, who choose the trendiest church-planting locations or the bigger suburban churches with the best prospects, knowing that there is a shortage of people coming forward for ministry, so they can afford to be choosy.

For the past twenty years, the received orthodoxy in church planting has been that to reach a nation you must first go to the cities, because this is where people of influence live. This approach was developed by Harvie Conn at Westminster Seminary and embodied by Tim Keller in the brilliant work he has done in Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. The argument goes like this. When Paul went to a new nation with the gospel, he focussed his approach on the cities. If you want to shape a whole culture with the gospel, you need to reach the people who are the ‘movers and shakers’, the culture formers: intellectuals, academics, journalists, politicians, lawyers, and particularly the creatives and media types who influence so much of modern life. These people congregate in the cities. Reach the city and you reach the whole nation. Reach the villages and all you reach is that village. We need to think strategically.

Having thought a lot about nations in recent years, I want to challenge this assumption. Were cities really the focus of the apostles’ mission in Acts? I believe they were part of a bigger mission – to reach nations as a whole. The Great Commission in Acts 1:8 starts in a city, but goes from there to ‘all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.’ Luke records the names of so many nations as he writes his account. The brief Table of Nations in 2:9-11 lists fifteen nations and one imperial city, Rome. Acts 1:8 and 2:9-11 are programmatic to Luke’s entire argument, and yet only Jerusalem and Rome are mentioned. As the story develops, there are numerous references to nations. Here is a sample just from a limited range of chapters: 4:27; 4:37; 5:37; 6:1; 6:9; 8:1; 8:5; 8:9; 8:14; 8:25; 8:27; 8:40; 9:15; 9:31; 10:1; 10:22, 28, 35, 37, 39. It is almost instinctive to Luke not only to name his characters but to identify their ethnic background. He wanted his readers to realise that the world’s different nations can all be reached by the gospel, now that the Holy Spirit of Pentecost is at work among them, making a translatable gospel powerful in each and every language. He saw the New Testament world as divided up into geographically defined nations, each of which had value and dignity, and each of which was a priority for the church’s mission. That is not to say that cities didn’t matter to him, or to his master Paul, because clearly they are an important part of the narrative, but they were concerned not just for the great cities, such as Ephesus, Corinth and Rome, but also for the small places: Paphos, Berea, Troas, and even a backwater island such as Crete, because the apostolic vision was for nations above all. Reaching cities was merely a step towards reaching every part of every nation. This emphasis in Acts becomes yet more compelling when we compare it with Paul’s own explanation of his mission in Romans 15:14-29, so replete with ethnographic references.

Someone may reply that that was very nice for the first century, but now we are living in a world of advanced urbanisation. Many missiologists will point out that in recent years we passed the point where more than 50% of the world’s population lives in cities. Much play is made of this, and everyone assumes that ‘urban’ means cities. 83.1% of the UK population live in ‘urban areas’. Does that mean that only one in five of us live in towns or villages? Not at all! In the UK, an urban area is defined broadly as having a population of over 10,000 people. That includes Newquay in Cornwall, Haverfordwest in Wales, Fort William in Scotland and Woodbridge in Suffolk. But surely the population of villages continues to dwindle and the population of cities continues to rise? Actually, the opposite has been the case. A study based on four censuses 1981-2011 by Prof. Tony Champion, People in Cities: the numbers[1] which compared the growth of population in five categories – major cities, large cities, small cities, large towns, and small towns/rural. Population changeMajor cities declined in the 1980s, only slightly recovered in the nineties, while making up lost ground in the 21st century. At the same time, small towns and villages saw the largest growth of all, only being outstripped by major cities in the third decade of the study. Yet in that time a strong focus in church planting has been urban areas, particularly where they are young and trendy, and populated by students. Mez McConnell, Steve Kneale and Duncan Forbes have done valuable work in drawing attention to the need to focus on mission in hard places of social exclusion, areas that defy our current models of mission in a UK context. I agree with them. The needs of villages are different, but often as spiritually needy as urban council estates. In a similar way, Britain’s villages are also being ignored, except by churches that have been there for centuries, too many of which are dying, and vast numbers of which will not be there within ten years’ time. There are plenty of Christians who live in villages but drive off to church in a city more than half an hour away, and never reach their neighbours. There are clusters of good churches in some counties, such as the Grace Baptists of mid-Suffolk, or the Free Church of Scotland in the Black Isle, and there are gospel-proclaiming vicars serving rural benefices who are seeing their ministries flourish where God’s Word is clearly proclaimed. But this leaves too many communities where new churches need planting in county after county of Britain’s villages. Of course, the first step in planting a church anywhere is to talk to other churches and see what is there, and not to plant on the doorstep of a thriving gospel church. Flexible and creative thinking is also needed. Most Grace Baptist churches I know that are based in villages tend to focus on one village, rather than operate a multi-centred approach that serves several villages. Working out new models with more flexibility and creativity will be essential to this task.

Finally, what did I mean by my ‘movers and shakers’ comment? Was I suggesting that Christians should prioritise reaching the highly educated, culture-shaping elites? Not at all! We should reach everyone with the gospel, and churches should bridge all gaps of class, wealth and education to bring people together in Christ. Rather, I was making a point about villages to make people who sneer at villages to think again. Villages are not a cultural backwater in the internet age. The villages of Oxfordshire that were so scorned in The Vicar of Dibley are inhabited by cabinet ministers, rock stars and actors, bankers, judges and businessmen. They are the places where the population is growing fast, where people move to set up their business, to try to find themselves and escape from the stress of urban life, and in such a phase of life may be open to consider the gospel because they have more time to make genuine friendships. Those who take the risk of moving to serve in a village church setting may be surprised to find that the whole of British society is represented in microcosm in one community. At the same time, where in a city different classes often sort themselves into mono-cultural zones that never connect across class boundaries, in a village people from widely different backgrounds are thrown together in a genuine community. Don’t ever think that going to serve in a village is saying good bye to civilisation, influence and involvement in the work of the gospel across the nation. Villages are the heart of the nation, and every one of them needs a thriving gospel church.

[1] Tony Champion, People in Cities: the numbers, https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/321814/14-802-people-in-cities-numbers.pdf

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