Why I’m less keen on talking about class and church

There’s been much discussion about class and church in evangelical circles recently and despite the title I think that this is generally a good thing if it gets us talking about the missing people and unreached areas that should “rebuke our slothful ease” More so if it leads not just to talk but to action. I’ve had plenty to say on the matter myself, so I don’t want to pretend that the phrases middle class and working class will never appear on Faithroots again.

However, I do think there is a risk with talking about class and especially about talking about reaching the working classes.   It arises out of a statistic quoted. Apparently about 60% of us identify as “working class.”  Then there are the related statistics around education with a far greater proportion of graduates showing up in the church than in the wider population. I have also talked about the problem of reading classifications back onto our past experience. So, sometimes you get asked (as we did in a discussion at a recent training event) what class we belonged to growing up. But as I sometimes comment a little in jest, we didn’t really think in terms of class when I was growing up in West Yorkshire. There were Yorkshire people and then there was everyone else. When it came to us Yorkshire folk, well, there were most people and there were those with money (they lived in Baildon), you could call them “posh” I guess but they probably didn’t consider themselves truly posh unless they lived in Harrogate.

So, here are some risks with talking about reaching the working classes. The first risk is that we think in terms of cross cultural mission and as is often the case with cross cultural work, we think that the cultural reached is the minority, unusual, quirky culture. We have all of our amusing mission stories where we are the heroes at the centre of the story. The reality is that it is the church culture that is a little bit different, a little bit quirky, a little bit weird.  I’m not talking here about moral issues, just the general expectations we have about how to approach normal life, the things we find interesting, funny, exciting etc.

The second problem is that we then start to talk about “the working class” as a homogenous entity.  I have noticed some talking more in terms of “the working classes” and that’s a little bit better.  There are two issues here. The first is that we think in terms of a uniform group but in fact you will see differences between regions and even within them. To be “working class” in London is in some respects similar but in other respects different to being working class in Birmingham or Bradford.  In fact, you might find differences between Birmingham and the Black Country or Bradford and Leeds.  Then there are the differences between life on a council estate and life in an inner city area.  To keep that theme of local variation, even to say that you live on an estate -especially the big ones that dominate large parts of our cities isn’t to capture the whole story of an estate. If you came for a walk around where we live you would feel things change in the space of a 10 minute walk across the estate,

This links to a third theme that can be problematic.  I think that at times “working class” has become conflated with “council estate” and that has been narrowed in to very specific estate cultures. Then, when we’ve talked about mission, we’ve conflated mission to “the working classes” with “mission to the poor and disadvantaged. That’s unhelpful first of all because it isn’t a full and accurate representation, secondly because it then builds stereotypical images in our minds and thirdly because it creates a bit of a paternalistic mind-set. Again, we are the heroes stepping in to save people.  One result of this is that we then think that we are doing our bit for urban mission because there are one or two high profile ministries reaching the deprived.  Then we assume that it can only be people who fit a particular, exceptional profile who can do this kind of work.

So, when we are talking about urban mission and working class church, then there may be reasons to talk class, culture and cross cultural work if it encourages us to remember that we can’t just repeat the same tactics used to reach uni students, city workers and the home counties.  It’s helpful if it gets us thinking in terms of the need for pastors and planters who have grown up in the neighbourhoods where we want to see the gospel flourish.  However, if it leads to a sense of paternalistic heroism, if it makes us think of working class, urban Britain as an unusual, minority culture then that’s a hindrance.

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