Glenelg is one of the most remote settlements in mainland UK. Around 150 people live there and it’s connected to the outside world by a 9 mile single track road. It’s a very seasonal place for some. During the summer tourists use the ferry to the Isle of Skye.
I have a small bit of history with Glenelg. 17 years ago on my honeymoon, I ended up speaking at a local Christian Fellowship there. Initially the 20 or so people present thought I was the replacement Pastor from Inverness. That certainly caught me on the hop! Two weeks ago I visited the Church again on a damp and very windy Sunday evening. After a game of pool at the local pub, Jude, I and the kids went back to see what it was like.
I recognised one of the guys as soon as I walked in, a lovely guy with a very broad Scottish accent. I could even tell him what his job used to be, and still was actually! When I was last in the church he had just become a Christian, now he was the leader. How times change. It was great, but a comment he made stuck with me very forcefully.
“Not just Africa, we need mission work here”
The fact is he is correct. I’ve been thinking the same for a year or so myself. In his county and the Isle of Skye there is a population of about 100000 people. Perhaps around a few hundred people go to church, which is 1% or lower of the population. That is incredibly low, and definitely a situation that demands a response of reaching out.
When I am in the UK, I have more recently made Snowdonia my home and I stay in my cottage in the hamlet of Cwm Penmachno. Over 100 years ago, it was a hotbed of the welsh revivals, more preachers came from Cwm Penmachno per head of population than anywhere else in Wales. An interesting point is that in welsh a vicar is called a preacher, pregethyr, a hark back to the revivalist days. Here, the situation is similar. At best in Snowdonia there are small handfuls of people who attend Church, there is one such group up the valley from where we are. However, I can drive 25 miles North West and 17 miles East and not really pass a church of any note at all, save for the one Anglican Church in Betws-y-Coed. Again, the population of the National Park is around 90000 people. Again, I would estimate around 1% or lower attend church actively.
It isn’t simply just about people knowing Jesus as well. There are profound issues in rural society, that the church would normally contribute to, and yet it doesn’t simply because there are no people. No people equal no money. No money and well it’s difficult to do anything. This of course doesn’t just affect rural areas, it can also be said of cities. My observation is that there are many churches trying to change this in the cities and towns, there are hardly any in the rural areas. The situation away from the odd mega church or tourist area is immeasurably worse.
There’s an entire generation of people that are either disenfranchised from the Church or is completely ignorant to what it is.
Historically we hold onto the fact that the church has been strong, and yet our current situation demands a different response. We can’t do “church” and Christianity the way we have done over many years, the landscape has changed completely. This landscape demands mission. I think you could justifiably state that some rural areas are “practically” unreached at this point toward the start of the 21st century.
This to me all sounds very familiar. For years I have worked in Southern Africa, within remote rural areas of Zambia and surrounding countries. Logistically the situation is actually more difficult, but there are many parallels and I think strategies and lessons that we can use from one ‘live’ mission situation to another.
Within Zambia I rightly or wrongly decided that the existing church structures often presented more of a hindrance to the gospel. That sounds incredibly rebellious and maybe even a little arrogant, I’m aware of that. They were either too settled and focused inwards or were power games where different church structures vied for dominance within an area. We sidestepped all of that and in a very simple fashion planted Life! groups of people to teach Christ in their community and provide a forum, a way of reaching their community. Everyday Christians from all church backgrounds met together and those that were disenfranchised came. Together they reached people and were extremely relevant in their community. At the last count there were around 200 groups, around 3500 people meeting and touching thousands more.
In some ways we have forged a new way, a new representation of Christianity for everyday people.
Whether it is more authentic and proper, I’ll leave for you to decide. However, I know it works and I could never go back to using the old ways. The future is not dominated by singular church leaders or even denominational churches. We need to learn to see the church in a village in its’ entirety and work on that basis. Sooner or later we won’t have a choice, we will die out if we don’t change. That sounds tough, but we are one generation away from that reality.
I have a very strong belief that through everyday Christians, people like you and me, God will reach our villages and that 1% could become 10% and maybe even more. Once we take that view it has to shape our modes of operation and activities to embrace that truth. This belief is also pretty universal for most rural areas wherever in the world I have been, whether they are completely unreached or simply “partially unreached”. The key is everyone aligning themselves with the plans that God has for the village and enacting them. For me it comes down to this.
We need a fresh vibrant Christianity right at the heart of the village for everyone. For the sake of places like Glenelg, are we willing to embrace it?