In defence of Rev
Ministry in the inner city is challenging, which is why I'd describe Adam Smallbone not as a liberal, but as a pragmatist - and we need more like him. By Michael Shaw
I like the TV series Rev,
though there are some moments when I cringe, as what I see is far too accurate a depiction of life in an urban church. It may be Anglican, but I see the same things as a Baptist.
So it was surprise when a few days ago my social media timelines were filled with a story that dismissed the series. I will summarise:
Adam Smallbone is nice - there is more to Christianity than being nice
St Saviours is a stagnant church - but church membership is up
Smallbone is a liberal Christian - who dismisses Evangelicalism, fails to deal with sin, and is more interested in a “social gospel” (my interpretation)
I wonder if the article author Dr Tim Stanley (a historian of the United States) has ever served in an inner city parish? I wonder if those who share that criticism have ever had to deal with a church that is “small, full of delinquents, and the eponymous clergymen is often driven to drink by their unholy antics”?
The problem is that until you have been there, when you are in a church in a difficult area, with difficult or troubled people, you cannot know how ministry changes. How all the wonderful stuff you learnt in the confines of theological college goes out the window. To my mind Adam Smallbone is not a liberal, but a pragmatist.
So why do people have a problem with him? Maybe it is because his wife has the audacity to have a “real” job, rather than appearing on the church website, dutifully supporting her husband with glowing white teeth and an expensive hair-do. Maybe it is because all the optimism and upbeat-ness of the average middle class evangelical church, with its professional worship leaders, PA system to die for and glass lecterns, are not present.
Maybe it is because Adam has doubts, and you can’t have doubts can you? Maybe it is because Adam is not a “superstar” or a “superhero” but he is fallible, he has needs, he has problems. Maybe he is just a little to close to reality for some people's liking?
Watching Rev is hard for me, because I have been there: all the stuff he has faced I have seen, maybe not in the same way, but close enough. Take the fourth episode of this current series, when a man appears who is able to help with their finances, but it is discovered that he has a “past” (internet paedophilia). Suddenly all the prejudices and issues come to the fore, and Adam has to make a compromise that pleases nobody. Now I am lucky not to have to deal with a paedophile yet, but I have dealt with many people for whom some people would struggle to include into the church context.
Like Adam I have to face the daily burden of not knowing whether the finances will be there next month, and I feel myself turning into a church fundraiser. But also like Adam I have had moments where I turn to God and simply ask, “Have I done something horribly wrong to deserve this?”
The problem is that in areas like where St Saviour's sits, the church is not full of people, but the opposite, and often they do this without a full-time minister. The problem that Rev reveals is not that there are too many Adam Smallbones, but there are not enough! In the penultimate episode Adam is seen carrying a cross through the city, and in many ways his whole ministry at St Saviour's has been cross shaped. But is that not what we are called to be? Did Jesus not tell us to carry a daily cross?
Yes, the inner city is hard, yes it can be difficult, but at the same time I wonder if Jesus was walking around today would he be in the suburbs or in the inner city? Some will argue both, but Jesus seemed to spend a lot of time in Bethany!
The Revd Michael Shaw is minister of Devonport Community Baptist Church, Plymouth