THE Church in the UK is dominated by the middle class, who must eschew superior attitudes and empower working-class culture if the dearth of working-class people in their congregations is to be reversed.
This is the message of A Church for the Poor (David C. Cook), a new book whose authors, Martin Charlesworth and Natalie Williams, straddle the class divide.
“If the poor or working-class are uncomfortable in our churches, we don’t need to convert them to our middle-class ways,” the authors write. “We need to move out of our comfort zones and accept them as they are.”
With a warning against “an attitude of superiority”, they cite sermons that disparage Sun readers, and social-media postings by Christians who argued for an IQ test before people could vote in the EU referendum. Churches must “consciously empower the sub-culture of the incoming group”, they argue.
Both authors work for Jubilee+, a charity established to encourage the New Frontiers network of churches to become “champions of the poor”. Mr Charlesworth, who leads the charity, writes of his “secure middle-class background”. Ms Williams, its communications coordinator, grew up in a “very working-class family”, but writes that she is now “middle-class in almost every way”.
“In my case that is largely due to becoming a Christian, copying the behaviour of others in church life, and aspiring for different things in my life as a result,” she reflects.
Speaking last week, she said that she and her co-author had “really wrestled” with definitions of both poverty and class, and drawn on research and the labels people gave themselves. She had been challenged about why she described herself as middle-class. She said, however: “I know that if I said I am working-class, people would say ‘No you’re not’. But I feel I am working-class because of my upbringing. . . I identify with working-class values and habits much more, even though I have crossed over to a certain extent.”
The book presents this trajectory as a problem. “If every working-class Christian becomes culturally middle-class, our churches become full of middle-class people, and there are no working-class Christians left in communities where other working-class people live.”
“It’s okay if people leave working-class culture if they want to,” Ms Williams said. “But sometimes, people come to church and there is this pressure, often unspoken, to conform to certain ways of behaving. It’s okay if they are biblical, but not okay if it’s just saying: ‘This is the way we do things, and if you don’t conform you won’t fit in.’”
She argues, for example, that working-class hospitality — having the neighbours drop in whenever — is more hospitable than middle-class dinner parties. Saving is praised by the middle class, and yet the Bible cautions against hoarding wealth.
As evidence that the “truly working-class are woefully under-represented in British churches”, the book refers to a 2014 YouGov survey which found that only 38 per cent of respondents who reported regular church attendance identified as working-class, and the Talking Jesus survey (News, 6 November 2015), which estimated that 81 per cent of practising Christians had a university degree. In the 2015 British Social Attitudes Survey, 60 per cent of people defined themselves as working-class.
Although the authors acknowledge that they are using generalisations, they venture to offer observations on differences of culture. A church leader from a working-class background explains in the book: “The working-class are straight-talking but the middle class see them as rude; whereas the middle class are polite, but the working-class see them as two-faced or dishonest.”
“People from working-class or poorer backgrounds often think and act differently to me,” Mr Charlesworth observes. “Over the years, I have learned to understand and appreciate such things as the power of storytelling, clothing styles that express personality rather than social aspiration, a lesser commitment to schedules and planning, a preference for cafés and pubs rather than coffee shops, a more direct style of talking, a higher tolerance of swearing and smoking, and a greater value put on people rather than possessions.”
The book acknowledges the “mass mobilisation” of churches to respond to the needs of the poor, including the provision of foodbanks; but it expresses concern that social activism has been divorced from personal evangelism. “This is the most unloving thing we can do.” Spiritual poverty is a “particularly acute problem for the poor”, they argue. “With so little else to fall back upon, a lack of spiritual values can lead to an even starker and bleaker life.”
“It is unethical to be manipulative,” they write. “However, we do need to provide sensitive and suitable ways of inviting the poor on a spiritual journey of discovery that will involve the possibility, in the right context, of explaining the full gospel message to them and inviting a response.”
The authors call for radical action to bridge class divides: “We need to be prepared to move into neighbourhoods that have bad reputations, to place our children in schools that may not achieve the best results . . . to listen to people who we may feel we cannot relate to at all.”
Other strategies considered include planting satellite churches, sending out “urban missionaries”, and “deconstructing” the culture of existing churches. Mr Charlesworth draws on the experience of church-planting in a poorer, working-class area where Alpha is run as a one-to-one programme rather than an evening event demanding group discussion. A regular bingo night is run, the coffee is instant, and, given the low levels of giving, the PA system is modest.
Among the barriers to change that are explored in the book are materialism, individualism, and cynicism.
“The more time I spend with people facing poverty, the more aware I am of my need to change more than theirs,” Ms Williams writes.
The Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North
The C of E boasts of being a Christian presence in every community, and yet much of our common life bypasses poorer areas, and within five to ten years we will have all but lost the Church on our outer estates.
Every renewal movement in the Church’s history has started with the poor, and yet we are pumping resources into white, middle-class, graduate forms of church life. Our language, culture, resources, literature, and structures alienate many from poorer backgrounds.
A Church for the Poor lays bare these challenges, and yet it seems to me to do so in a way that does not go far enough. It implies that the onus is on middle-class people to be more astute and clever in sharing the gospel with the poor, as if we “have it” and “they” don’t.
Yet God is profoundly present in areas of poverty, and his face shines out in the faces of those who struggle. Matthew 25 demonstrates that it is the rich who need to be evangelised by the poor.
This means equipping churches in poorer areas to identify and draw out their own leaders and evangelists rather than ship them in from outside. It means taking massive risks with leadership styles that are counter to the Church’s accepted culture. And it means having the courage to allow the mainstream Church to allow its structures, its institutions, and, above all, the content of its proclamation to be moulded by these working-class voices. It’s not enough to be a Church for the poor. We must be a Church of the poor. Only then will the renewal we long for come.
Captain Richard Cooke, Church Army Leader of the Edge Community, Selby,
I am looking forward to reading A Church for the Poor. It could be very timely for us, as we grow church from scratch in a community of working-class people or those who do not work.
An experienced vicar said recently: “Working-class people often do God but they don’t do church.” Yet I find people are drawn to genuine community. “I come here because it’s good to be with kind people,” Rachel, at our Messy Church BBQ on Sunday, said.
People on the estate are often part of a very vibrant, if hurting, community. Do they find that in church? And do they encounter Jesus in our actions and words?
As a middle-class person, I am challenged in my assumptions about people’s Christian knowledge, how they think and learn, and we too often hold on to the reins of our agenda rather than allow people to contribute and own church for themselves. And what of my desire to love people at a “safe distance”? I hope this book contributes to our ongoing journey to help others experience loving community with Christ at the centre.
Sister Lynne Bone, Church Army evangelist, Thanet Centre of Mission
I agree that more can always be done to ensure that our churches are welcoming to all, regardless of age, background, education, and culture.
I wonder, however, if the authors are attempting to fit a round peg in a square hole. In my experience of walking alongside people who are non-churched and would fit into their definition of working-class, church culture is very alien, and they thrive most when allowed to develop their own sense of what church can be for themselves, and to live it out in ways that are natural and real to them.
If the Established Church (in whatever form that may be) is the square hole that perfectly fits square pegs — i.e. middle-class people, according to this book — then work to create round holes for round pegs, i.e. working-class people, may be worth exploring.
There is a danger that the book suggests that the middle-class church needs to “round off” its edges to cater for the working-class folk. I wonder how helpful that would be to anyone? Both shapes, indeed all shapes, are “fearfully and wonderfully made”, and can co-exist side by side within the one body.
Listen to an interview with Natalie Williams on Episode 19 of the Church Times Podcast www.churchtimes.co.uk/podcast