You've heard the phrase 'It's grim up north.' I'll admit that Bolton railway station on a grey and rainy May day is not the most glamorous of places. And driving the road that links up Bolton, Bury and Manchester is not exactly Sunset Boulevard. It's easy to see why some people from more Southern climes have a grim view of at least some of the North of England. And yet as I leave this 'grim' place and return though the Lakes and Scottish Borders to bonnie Dundee, I find my heart strangely warmed.
What makes a place is the people. And I found the people of Bolton and Bury to be some of the warmest and most sane human beings I have met. There are however, plenty reasons to be concerned about what is happening in the area. The problems of a post-industrial society, the scourge of alcohol and drug abuse, the results of dysfunctional family situations, and the increasing gap between rich and poor – where our society laughingly talks about equality but increases inequality – are all factors which make the problems of northern society, as elsewhere in the country, very real. I was surprised at the number of UKIP posters and billboards but could understand the appeal. I spoke to one man whose town was now 75% Muslim and who had seen his church burned. Immigration is a complex issue, but it is clear there is potential for racial and ethnic conflict in a society where many of the local people see themselves being supplanted. How the church deals with this issue is going to be crucial.
What makes a people is the gospel. Righteousness exalts a nation but sin is a reproach to any people. And righteousness comes through Christ. So it was wonderful to be in a lively, open, biblical, contemporary Kings Church in Bolton. I know that every church has problems and I'm sure Kings has its fair share. But what struck me was the encouragement, growth, outward looking biblical vision of the people.
I was there to do something the church had never done before. Meeting in their beautifully converted warehouse on an industrial estate, a large crowd gathered to do a question and answer session with yours truly on the 'stage'. It was a well organised, well run event, and the place was packed. There was a real buzz and sense of God at work, as the normal big questions were asked. Where was God in the Tsunami? Are science and Christianity opposed? Why Christianity? As well as the more esoteric questions that Christians ask – who were the Nephilim? What about predestination? What about the anti-Christ? What struck in conversations afterwards was the enthusiasm of the people. Christians were thrilled to be able to engage with and discuss these questions. And non-Christians indicated their interest and desire to find out more.
This was followed up the following day by a meeting with the staff and friends of the church – in a two hour training session on church based persuasive evangelism. Again it was wonderful to have people from different backgrounds provoking one another to love and good works. What particularly thrilled me was the fact that there were those with great Christian experience and theological training, mixing with some men from a project the church runs who were new Christians or 'not yet' Christians. It was great to see that no distinction was made and each had their own valid and invaluable contribution to make.
And that's why I write this. In the midst of all the stories of post-industrial decline, of churches turning away from the Gospel and failing to reach their communities, there are still the stories of the Lord's faithful servants, who are reaching out, experiencing growth and looking to plant, water and pray that God will give the increase. I met young men who are fathers, wholly committed to serving Jesus and bringing up their families in the joy and fear of the Lord. I met visionary leaders who were willing to move beyond the confines of their particular traditions and seek out what the Lord has to say in the Word, and put it into practice. And I met women who wanted to use their creative gifts, time and money to reach all in their communities. The passion, joy and zeal gave me great hope.
There is a lesson for the whole church in Britain here. We need to stop our compartmentalising. You know the kind of thing. Our church is into (pick one), worship/teaching/mercy ministry/prayer/mission/evangelism/justice, as though these were optional items given for us to pick our own emphasis. We have to have and do them all. Our churches need to be into the Word, prayerful practical and engaged with the questions and issues that people are facing. We need to do this as a community of God's people. The local church is the God-given community to reach our communities, build up the saints and transform the world. I saw a little of that in Bolton this week. It's not grim up North. It's glorious!