Back to school…and the future!

Yesterday was a big day in our house. My son went off to high school for the first time. He’s quite the nervous soul, and so the last couple of weeks have been a bit lively! Not only have we had the joys of spending a ridiculous amount of money on compulsory school-branded clothing, and equipment he won’t use that often (over £200, even with buying the cheapest stuff we could find!), but we’ve had occasional tears, grumps, and the odd nightmare.

It was a long time ago that I first went to high school (probably well before some of his teachers were born!). But I still vividly remember the six weeks of anxiety about the stories of heads being flushed down toilets and what Year 11s did to little Year 7s behind Faggee’s Corner or on the Cage Walk. But I also remember that there turned out to be nothing to them. And I also remember my years as a high school teacher, and know that generally kids settle in quickly, get used to a different way of working, and most importantly make new friends fairly quickly.

5 years I spent in this place. Happiest days of your life…apparently!

So, as he went off in fear and trepidation yesterday morning, I was thinking about the friends he might make. And it struck me that over the coming weeks he might meet people who will be his mates for life. People who he has, as yet, never set eyes on who might be the guys he drinks in the Malt Shovel with in 40 years, or the blokes he works with, or the people he turns to when life falls apart down the line, maybe even someone he might walk down an aisle with one day.

You see, that’s Cleck. So many of the people I meet in the town have lived here all their lives. They grew up here. They all went to the same school, unless they went off to the grammar school in Hecky (by definition a minority). They’ve all known each other since they were 11, or 14 at least if they’re old enough to remember the middle school system. They all know each other’s mums and dads, and different family situations. They all remember that thing that happened when they were 16, and what she did to him when he said that to her. They still hang round together, not on Facebook, or Insta, or even on Friends Reunited! But in real life. Their best mate is still the fella they met in the classroom way back when. Lots of them are married to one another. Very often, it’s even generational. Families have lived here for as long as anybody can remember. Not only did they go to school with their best mate, but their dad went to school with his dad, right back to when their great-grandads worked in the mills together.

Cleck in 1900… Dark and satanic according to some poet or other

You see they’ve got history. Long history. Involved history. And that means that planting, and being, a church here might be a bit different to places where people tend to be a bit more socially and geographically mobile. There’s probably lots of things it means, but it means at least that we’ve got to rethink our timetable for growth. On the other hand, it means that setting up a solid little church invested in the local community could, by God’s grace, do great good over a very long time.

You see, planting a church in a place like Cleck simply will take a long time for lots of reasons. But the fact that nearly everyone knows nearly everyone, and always has, plays a huge part in it. As a church we’re all incomers. Some of us are even incomers to Yorkshire. Even my wife and I, who’ve lived all our lives within a 7 mile radius of Cleck, are still in many ways outsiders. And that means that deep relationships are going to take longer to grow. We’ve not got that history, we’re not from round here. Many people already have a huge network of relationships, whether family, or mates, or whoever. And therefore there’s less people looking for new friends, or new opportunities to get out and do stuff. It means getting into our community is going to take longer. And so planting here is going to be very different to planting in a mobile town or city where people are coming and going all the time. It’s going to take longer, it’s going to be more labour intensive, it’s probably going to be more frustrating. We’re going to need more support from outside, both in terms of people and finances. We’re going to have to be patient, and keep going even when it feels like nothing’s happening. We certainly won’t be self-sufficient, or self-funding, any time soon.

A place of memories for all who grew up here… The old school building

But it also means that, long term, there are huge opportunities here that might not exist in more mobile places. Because in 20, or 30, or even 100 years, by God’s grace we’ll still be here. Maybe not all of us, or even any of us. But, if the it’s the Lord’s will, then Spen Valley Church will. And, God willing, it will be full of people who grew up here. Who went to school here. Who have invested their entire life in this town. Whose mates are the people they met in Year 7 or even in Reception, or even before that. People who are simply part of the huge, complex, tangled web of relationships that make up Cleck. Who those around them have seen grow up, have seen go through the process of coming to know Jesus, be baptised, and get stuck into church life. People who have lived out the transformation of life that comes with knowing Jesus. People who are part of the very fabric of this town and are determined to proclaim the gospel of Jesus to those they’ve loved all their lives. Who demonstrated the keeping power of God in one place, in front of the same people, for 70 years. That’s just not possible in areas where people stick around for 3 years, or even 10, before moving on. That’s just not possible in places where all the kids go off to university and rarely come back. But I reckon that here, it just might be.

We’re still a million miles from that yet. But we are praying that God will be gracious in getting us there one day. That he might take a group of incomers and make us part of this place. That he might bring us more incomers willing to come and be part of this town for the sake of the gospel. And that he might use that process so that people might come in and know the rest that comes with belonging to the family of God in Jesus…

There’s nowt as queer as (Yorkshire) folk!

I am middle class.

There, I said it. Cue rejoicing from my mate Ian, who’s been trying to get me to admit the fact for the last 8 years! You wouldn’t believe the pain it caused me to write it though.

What a real northern, working class man looks like! Or so he reckons…

But why should it? I grew up in a semi-detached house that my parents still own. They were both teachers. I, and both my brothers, went to university. I did a post-graduate course, and became a teacher. I married a teacher. I bought a house. So far, so middle class. But if you’d have asked me what class I was, there would only ever have been one answer. And it would have gone summat like this: ‘Not middle class!’

You see I grew up, and have lived all my life, in industrial (and then post-industrial) West Yorkshire. And my formative years were during the 1980’s and 90’s (when industry was becoming increasingly post-). And in those days round here, it was us against the world. We were Yorkshire, we were working class (even when we weren’t), and we were ‘oppressed’ by middle class southerners. Whatever the truth was; that situation, this place, was crucial to the identity of so many Yorkshire people of my generation.

Billy Casper: a Yorkshire stereotype with more than a grain of truth to him…

We knew who we were against. We knew who we weren’t. The chattering middle classes. The shandy-drinking inhabitants of middle England. The ‘South’: out to get us. Out to destroy our jobs, and then our heritage with their culture & customs, their weird vowels & cut glass accents. This mythical beast even had a name. It’s just hers wasn’t a name you said out loud round here back then. It’s still sometimes a risk. Whatever else we weren’t, we weren’t ‘privileged middle class southerners’. Even though, looking back, some of us were much more privileged, or middle class, than we’d like to have believed.

Now, I think that over the years I’ve seen a bit of a bigger world. I’ve actually met some southerners. I’ve seen southerners work their guts out for the sake of the gospel in Yorkshire. I’ve come to realise that whole swathes of Yorkshire, especially in the cities and bigger towns, now have plenty of Yorkshire folk in them who we would have written off as ‘southern’ growing up. People who would quite happily identity themselves as middle class. I’ve seen that Yorkshire folk are not some monocultural entity. More importantly, I’ve realised that the urgency of the gospel need in Yorkshire means we’re desperate for people from all over the Uk (and the world) to come and help us. The vast, vast majority of Yorkshire people, the people I see every day, are going to hell. And anybody who is willing to come, to commit to love Yorkshire folk, and share the gospel with them, will get a red carpet welcome from me. Even if you do drink shandy, and eat hummus.

And yet. And yet…

If you were off to share the gospel with folk in an unreached people group somewhere around the world, you might approach fitting in with a bit of trepidation. You might want to get to learn people’s cultural differences, and adapt your approach to ministry and life slightly. To learn a lesson from a bloke from Barnsley, that most Yorkshire of all Yorkshire places, who taught us all what contextualisation looks like.

Tha needs to do stuff different when you’re an incomer. I’ll tell thee that for nowt…

And vast swathes of Yorkshire are just like Cleck, and the Spen Valley. Post-industrial, almost unreached for the gospel, with their own unique view of the world and what life should look like. And in desperate need of sacrificial Christians to come and meet them where they are. People who are willing to get past the fact that they will be known as incomers all their life. People who are willing for ‘posh’ to become a prefix to their first name, simply because their vowels have too many ‘r’s in them. People who are willing to get out of their comfort zone to share Jesus with old school Yorkshire people. People who are willing to humbly learn from those of us who have lived here all our lives and whose own worldview has been shaped by growing up here. That we might, together, reach these people with the gospel.

After a visit in 2014, Kevin Deyoung wrote up 10 lessons he’d learnt about England. Number 10 said, ‘There’s England and then there’s Yorkshire, which everyone from Yorkshire and not from Yorkshire seem happy to acknowledge.’

We know we’re different, we even delight in it. And maybe, just maybe, that’s precisely why we need your help…

So Pastor, what are you doing today?

A few weeks ago I spent far too much time on Twitter. Now my wife would probably say that I spend too much time on Twitter about 349 days a year. But the other week I managed to crack out 49 tweets in one thread. Let’s just say that’s a few more than normal.

It all started when a couple of friends asked me recently what my week looked like. The old joke that a pastor is invisible 6 days a week, and incomprehensible on the 7th still comes out occasionally. Maybe it’s just because I preach rubbish sermons! See what you reckon here. But I think it’s mainly because to a lot of people, whether church members or people outside the church, at least the first half is true. It can be very tempting for pastors to spend the majority of their week locked up in the study working hard on sermons. Even when people do see their pastor during the week, they don’t always know what he gets up to the rest of the time.

So, in part to answer my friends’ question, and to help others understand what ministry really does look like in a post-industrial Yorkshire mill town, I decided to live tweet my week. Check it out here. I wanted to show my friends (and anybody else that cared to listen) that, in our context here in Cleck, a pastor who spends his entire week in the study is going to make minimal impact for the kingdom of God. He might preach sermons that make Spurgeon look like a loser, but unless he engages with real people day to day he’s going to be preaching awesome sermons to a very select few. I also wanted to challenge some views of what is and isn’t pastoral ministry that I’ve encountered over the years. To suggest that we should maybe have a bigger view of what being a pastor involves. That hanging out with mates in the pub, at the football, or in a café is as much pastoral ministry as preparing a sermon.

I hope the thread shows the importance I place on spending time with people. Investing in church members to help equip them to disciple one another, and share the gospel with their friends. Investing in those who aren’t yet trusting in Jesus to build relationships, and show them the awesome person of Jesus. Just being a normal human being, who spends time with people, laughing, talking, mithering, and getting on with life together. You know…like Jesus did. Jesus: the glutton and the drunkard, the friend of tax collectors and sinners.

I also wanted to model to our church’s members what it looks like to get stuck into people’s lives, in a way I don’t normally. A fresh nudge that the gospel calls us to live as a family; in and out of each other’s houses, spending time chilling together, opening the Bible with each other, and pointing one another to Jesus. A fresh call to sacrificial use of time, energy, and cash in getting stuck into relationships with people around our town and valley. In fact, since then, I’ve started sharing my weekly google calendar with the church’s members, so they can see what I’m up to and be praying. And so they will, hopefully, be inspired to get out and spend time with people themselves.

Because here’s the thing: I can spend my time with people all I want, but there’s only one of me and 17000 people in Cleck. And it’s only as we as a church get stuck into our town; sacrificially, daily, lovingly, that we’ll show people the true beauty of the gospel. Even if all our church do that, and we’re very slowly getting there, we’re still only 14 in a valley of 50000. We need more workers. We need people from both inside and outside of Yorkshire to look at the need here, and commit to come and get stuck in. To join us in this joyful, happy, exhausting slog that is the work of making disciples where very few people know Jesus.

And, because of that fact, I also wanted to nudge the wider evangelical world. To start a conversation, however small, about what ministry looks like. About how we reach people with the gospel. About how we invest in people. But to also nudge maybe just one person to see the need. To commit to praying for our gospel needy area, both here in Cleck and around Yorkshire. To maybe even consider joining us in this mission. That here, in the Spen Valley, where for the vast, vast majority of people Jesus is not named or known. That here, the gospel might turn the world upside down.

Big hopes for a Twitter thread I know. But then, who’d have thought 120 terrified losers, hiding out in a spare room would ever have any impact on the world…

Welcome to Cleck!

Cleckheaton is a belter of a place to live. The bloke who wrote the Mr. Men grew up here. It’s got good transport links, within easy reach of Leeds, Manchester, Bradford, Huddersfield. I can testify that it’s got some great pubs, a place where you can get a banging pie and chips, and a top live music venue (if you like tribute acts!). But perhaps the biggest claim to fame (it’s on all the signs when you drive into town) is that we have the world’s biggest Indian restaurant! Which would be perfect, if only I liked curry…

But Aakash is more than just a restaurant (and if you really don’t like curry, they do a tasty chicken and chips). It stands as a monument to the gospel need of my town, my valley, my county. You see the building that houses Aakash used to house an old Congregational Church. With space for 2000 people, it wasn’t small either. It reflected the gospel life in the Spen Valley that had bloomed in the 18th century revival.   

Now I’m not one to get sentimental about old church buildings. A building is a building. If it outlives it’s usefulness, ditch it. I’m just conscious of the symbolism. Conscious of the fact that the vast, vast majority of people in my town would rather enjoy a tasty korma than taste and see that the Lord is good. Which is probably true for your town or city as well.

But the truth in our town is that, not only do most people not want to hear the gospel, here there’s not much opportunity for them to hear it even if they did. It’s why we planted Spen Valley Church here just under two years ago. Because two years in, the vast majority of people I speak to in the town have never knowingly spent any amount of time with a bible-believing Christian, or heard the good news of salvation in Jesus. And I speak to people in that situation every day. The opportunities to share the gospel with people are seemingly endless, you just have to walk out the door.

But that opportunity brings it’s own challenges. As a church we have 14 members. There are 17000 people in Cleck, and 50000 in the Spen Valley. The harvest field is huge, the workers are very few. If we’re going to take this opportunity we need people to come and join us. To get stuck into life here. To join with us in an opportunity to share Jesus.

But the Aakash has something to say to that as well. Although people in Cleck do go there, Aakash is full when the car park is full. People drive in, have their fill, and leave.

After all, who wants to live in a fairly run down post-industrial Yorkshire mill town? Who wants to come and invest in it’s people?

Maybe people who follow a bloke who came from a poor, northern town that nobody wanted to move to. A bloke who spent most of his ministry walking around two bit northern towns, and had compassion on those very northerners, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. A bloke whose compassion drove him to a cross in order to be the shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. And a bloke whose compassion drove him to command his disciples that they should, ‘ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest field.’ (Matthew 9.35-38)

One of the aims of this blog is to shine a light on what ministry in a small Yorkshire town is like. But also to shine a light on the opportunity there is to share the gospel in towns like Cleck all across Yorkshire and the North of England. To say, ‘Come over and help us’. Because we can shuffle the sheep who already have a shepherd as much as we like. But unless they hear the gospel, those without a shepherd in Cleck, in Yorkshire, in the north of England, are just going to happily crack on with eating their korma…