A couple of years ago, at City Hope, we were challenged by issues of race and nationality that we were facing as a church. Issues of a dominant white church culture clashing with other national cultures that were represented in the church. In response to that challenge, we held a series of ‘multicultural evenings’. On one of those evenings we sat in small groups and compared a variety of life experiences. We talked about things like family holidays, our experience of school, what family meal times were like. The group I was part of included a Filipino, a Cameroonian, an Iraqi, a Nigerian and a white working class lady.
It quickly became apparent that the biggest differences of experience expressed in that group were nothing to do with national culture but everything to do with class.
A lot of churches are now aware of national differences but we also need to wake up to the huge differences of culture and life experience within the white British population. Even though we speak the same language, shop in the same supermarkets and sometimes even live in the same street; we’re not all the same. We have very different values and attitudes to many things in life. From money to education, work, community and family, and we all tend to think our way is the right way.
Gillian Evans puts it so well:
The relationship between the social classes in England hinges on a segregation that is emotionally structured through mutual disdain; in other words I become conscious that the differences between people of distinct classes are deeply felt and not just occupationally defined. Overcoming them is not, therefore, going to be a simple intellectual decision or even the inevitable outcome of the change in economic fortunes or political will. It is going to be a question of how far we can overcome the embodied and largely unconscious history of how we’ve come to value ourselves as a particular kind of person.
The church in this country certainly isn’t effective in reaching the working classes . This view is supported by the research carried out by ‘Local Evangelism & Mission Aid’, who quote Carl Beech (Christian Vision for Men) in stating that UK churches are 36% male, 64% female 98% middle-class.
As I’ve researched issues of class in the context of the local church I’ve spoken with people from many different walks of life: barristers and bank robbers; union reps. and international economists; church leaders and church members; Christians and non-Christians. All had definite opinions about class differences and some had very passionate comments to make about their experience of class related issues.
One, a successful criminal barrister was acutely aware of that ‘mutual disdain’ after being on the receiving end of class prejudice. He related a story from his teenage years: A gifted schools rugby player, he was invited to his local regional trials. On arrival, the first thing required of all the trialists was to declare which school they attended. The barrister and one other, were the only boys from local state comprehensives; they were also the only boys not to get their chance on the rugby pitch that day. All the public school boys got their chance.
Sadly, class prejudice was also observed in the church. One working class man, who became a Christian through his local church’s CAP (Christians Against Poverty) debt counselling ministry, told me that the middle class people in his church never spoke to him for ages – he forgave them. As Christians, we must overcome any feelings of disdain towards those of another class. How are we going to do that?
We have to engage with the working class as equals, not as people to ‘minister to’; learn their ‘language’; find out about their closely held values; discover and learn to understand what they hold dear and Value them as people – not projects.
The urban areas of the UK constitute a classic mission field because there has been a complete loss of the gospel story across much of the white working class areas of our nation. We need to quickly strengthen our missionary endeavours in what is often seen as ‘hostile territory’ in this nation. ie the areas where the white working class reside.
Churches are quick to work out strategies; change their attitudes so as to reach out to other national cultures around them. We also need to recognise and honour working class culture and change our attitudes to effectively reach them too. We need consistent outreach to our working classes if we want to see the nation evangelised.
Don’t be deceived into thinking you’ve won the nation once you’ve influenced the Arts and Media, and the banking and political systems. Until we’ve impacted the working classes with the gospel, no amount of success elsewhere will compensate the Church for failure with this section of society.
What can we do?
Strategically plant churches in working class areas and then reach out to the working class people in those areas. It seems to me that typical church planting strategy highlights and reinforces the churches middle class roots: First, people are encouraged to move house to a town which has a university and then welcome the students and other mobile middle class people (like themselves) and then, from that demographic they find the people to train for leadership.
Raise up working class leaders. Currently we typically look for gifting/anointing AND academic ability when identifying leaders. We train in the classroom. The model of the apprentice would be more appropriate (and biblical) than the model of the university student. Don’t overlook ‘unschooled, ordinary men’ they’ve done a pretty good job in the past.