Many have argued that the evangelical church in the UK has been largely dominated by the middle class.
More should be done to reach those in poorer, working-class areas. Christ’s Great Commission demands it.
One example of working-class gospel ministry already taking place is through the charity Sixtyeightfive, founded by married father of two Ian Williamson. Working in some of the most deprived wards in the country, this ministry seeks to evangelise and disciple men and women in the North East England town of Middlesbrough who have been raised in a fatherless environment.
I caught up with Ian to chat more about his own testimony, the work of the charity and how it is reaching the working class for the gospel.
en: Tell us more about your personal connection with the issues the SixtyEightFive ministry engages with.
IW: I was raised in Middlesbrough by my mum, who was a lone parent. I longed to have my dad around and as such I suffered from fear, anger and found it difficult to understand what it means to be a man. I didn’t have anybody to tell me about cars, football, how to fix a puncture or to shave, for example!
My mum became a Christian when I was 14 and the family went to church with her.
The youth group at the church had an invisible but very noticeable divide between the estate kids and the church kids and I soon became dissatisfied and started knocking around with friends from school rather than the kids from the church.
Before I left the church at 16 I spent some time with a young man living on the estate who was also raised in a fatherless environment and who was training at Bible College. He shared Psalm 68 verse five with me and told me that even though we were fatherless, we could know God as our father and, although this didn’t mean much to me at the time, the verse stayed with me for many years.
Fast forward a few years, and when I was 28 I was working as a bouncer and was in debt, addicted to drugs and contemplating suicide. My mum told me Jesus could help me, and over a few weeks I started to read my Bible, pray and meet with Christians before crying out to God for forgiveness.
en: It’s great to hear how God sovereignly worked in your life. What ultimately persuaded you to get involved in full-time ministry with SixtyEightFive and its ‘affiliated church’ New Life Church, Middlesborough?
IW: I was training with the Yorkshire School of Christian Ministry and I had applied for a pastoral position in a rural church. However, my tutor told me that I would be wasted in a rural setting, and that led me to investigate the possibility of setting up in my home town of Middlesborough.
I spoke to a friend who was Director of Mission for a missionary organisation and he suggested that I started my own ministry. Shortly after, SixtyEightFive was born.
I soon started taking referrals from the police, schools and social services and the work moved from just serving men and boys to also working with mums and girls. We then started seeing people get saved, but struggled to find a local church to send people to. I approached Acts29 and the FIEC about three years ago about the possibility of them sending a team to plant in Middlesbrough.
I contacted Duncan Forbes, lead pastor of New Life Church, Roehampton and partnered with him and his church to plant New Life Church, Middlesbrough. Since beginning, we have grown from our living room to renting a church hall. Three of the new converts are also now training as interns and SixtyEightFive is a ministry of the church.
en: Can you talk me through a typical day’s ministry with SixtyEightFive? What sort of activities do you get up to?
IW: A typical day could include sparring with a couple of blokes at a kickboxing and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu gym. I'll often go and get beat up and as someone is strangling me tell them about Jesus!
We get involved with a luncheon club where we take school kids at risk of exclusion to prepare and serve meals to local pensioners. It’s amazing how some of the tough lads chill out when they’re getting shown how to ice cakes by a little old lady!
We find a lot of the men enjoy walking across the North Yorkshire moors for a couple of hours. This gives the men a chance to relax and take in the scenery and provides lots of gospel opportunities.
More recently we have developed our work with women and girls. One girl started an internship with the church and SixtyEightFive in September, supported by the FIEC training fund. The women also have craft nights, are involved in the luncheon club and have recently started rearing chickens and growing vegetables on a local allotment.
Everything we do is aimed at providing positive activities for people to do so that we can spend time building relationships with people and share the gospel. This is a long-term type of evangelism and it may take a year or two before we see any fruit, if at all, but our job is to preach the gospel and it’s up to God to do the rest.
en: I’m sure you’re aware of the whole social action/gospel proclamation debate. What’s your view on this?
IW: SixtyEightFive has the primary aim of preaching the gospel and making disciples. Yet as a natural outworking of our faith we try to glorify God by showing mercy and compassion to those less fortunate than ourselves.
en: What are some of the blessings and challenges you've encountered so far?
IW:One of the realities of this type of ministry is that you will experience lots of disappointment. I have worked with people who seemed to be doing really well spiritually and appear to have beaten addiction only for them to relapse and end up dead through overdoses.
I used to put pressure on myself due to a lack of trust in God’s sovereignty. I remember not wanting to go away on conferences because I was worried how a new convert would fare while I was away. The realisation that God does the choosing, converting and sanctifying has freed me from a lot of stress.
There are also plenty of blessings. One in particular was when I was working with a young man called John (not his real name) who was struggling with drugs. He ended up going to prison and I would visit him and then visit his dad afterwards to pass on how he was doing. After a couple of months of meeting with John’s dad, I asked if I could pray with him and soon after that he became a Christian, and is still professing faith a year after John’s release. His wife was also converted shortly after and has recently been baptised.
en: What does the future hold for working class gospel ministry?
IW: I can’t see the situation with family breakdown and poverty improving anytime soon, so I think the need for our type of ministry will exist for many years to come. My hope for SixtyEightFive is that we can help train and resource other churches in working-class areas to reach their communities with the gospel.
We are hoping that New Life will continue to grow and develop a team of people dedicated to reaching out to the lost in Middlesbrough. We also hope that pastors, preachers and female gospel workers will be trained and discipled with the aim of continuing the work.
Please pray that we continue be generous with our time and energy without missing out on time with each other and that God sends more workers to join us in the harvest.
David Binder blogs at http://thoughtsofbinder.wordpress.com/