Invisible Divides (Book Review)

One of my personal concerns and a significant reason for why Faithroots exist is the desire to see the church and the Gospel reaching into communities and to people where we simply haven’t been very good at reaching.  Here in the West Midlands we’ve seen a lot of church planting and some wonderful stories of growing churches that are Christ centred and Biblically founded. However, much of that work seems to have focused on the centre and the south of the city amongst students and graduates.  What about our estates and inner cities? What about the North and East of Birmingham? What about West Birmingham and the Black Country?

So, I’m really encouraged by Natalie Williams and Paul Browns’ new book Invisible Divides.  This is a book that picks up and champions that particular challenge of moving from a situation to where the church is no longer predominantly middle class but reflects a society around us where most people consider themselves working class.

The book is worth getting hold of first of all, because of the authors.  I’ve had the opportunity hear them speak at a day conference and then, they very generously gave their time to talk with me via a zoom call. They are both humble, generous, warm-hearted believers with an evident love for God and for others.  This shines through in the book.

Secondly it is worth reading because it is richly informative.  If you consider yourself middle class and want to get an insight into how working class people experience church then this book is for you. If you consider yourself working class – or are even uncertain about where you sit in terms of class, then this book will help you to understand your own experiences.[1]

The book outlines different ways in which challenges can arise through different attitudes and aspirations. They helpful point out that for many a seeming lack of aspiration is not about lacking in dreams but about lacking opportunities.  How we communicate and what we communicate matters too.  Often working-class people experience prejudice as people judge their abilities and intellect based on accents.   Expectations around welcome are considered as the authors identify ways in which attempts to be welcoming and evangelise can end up being off-putting rather than helpful.

I was particularly encouraged and challenged by the way that the book focused on the real and deep faith of many working-class Christians.  Often, they are deeply generous and ready to take risks. Life circumstances mean that they need to depend much on God. A telling example was during the pandemic when those on lower incomes were often hit harder by the financial impact of lockdown.  Furlough may have been a crucial intervention but losing 20% of your income on a low rage hits disproportionally harder than if you are on a high income and have savings.  For many people, that was the difference between being able to feed their families and not. Natalie and Paul raise this not to downplay the faith of middle-class believers but to demonstrate the faith of working class believers.

If I have any questions/challenges about the book it would be these two.  First, I wonder whether we have given enough attention in our thinking about regional differences as well as class differences. This isn’t just a question for this book and authors as I’m not sure this has really been given much attention to generally.  To give a concrete example, the book describes working class life in London where everyone’s home was open and you could just go in and out. You didn’t have to arrange to turn up in advance, you left when you wanted to and life went on around you.  This would be true of life back in my home city of Bradford with one small difference.  In their context, this also meant that you were free to help yourself to whatever food you wanted on the way in.  I’m not sure we would have dared do that at friends houses back in Odsal!  Now, when we arrived in the Black Country after life in the South East it was a relief for me to be back in a world where neighbours knew each other and looked out for one another. That friendliness and welcome was there again after being in a neighbourhood where I didn’t even know my next door neighbour’s name for the whole 10 years I was there. In Smethwick, you knew everyone on the road. There would often be clusters of neighbours stopping to chat on the doorstep or out on the pavement.  However, you didn’t go into one another’s houses.  I would class my neighbours as good close friends and we spent every Saturday during the pandemic getting together for drinks and food.  But even when the lockdown rules ended, things stayed pretty much outdoors.  I understand from talking to others that this seems to be a Black Country theme and so churches that have relied on home groups for discipleship have struggled.

Secondly, one of the things we wrestle with is the extent to which people change when they become Christians because of class pressure within the church and how much is that because of the Gospel? In the book, Natalie describes how she has had  growing sense of her work being a calling, a vocation and puts that down to the middle class context of church. But is it also about God putting her work on her heart as his work?  The church I grew up in started as an inner city mission hall. Many people were saved from deprived backgrounds.  Years later and the church was filled with the same people but they were home owners, managers, business owners even. There were even a few millionaires amongst them.  Now there were I think issues there as a church had become more middle-class but also part of the reason for those things was that people were no longer losing all the money they earnt to drink and gambling.  They wanted to be able to read so that they could read the Bible for themselves. Their changed lives meant that others looked to them as leaders and responsible people.  Again, I think this is a question that we all need to grapple with a little.

The book is refreshingly honest. It doesn’t pull its punches. However, it is not a negative book. It describes the problem and the gap not in order to complain but to encourage and challenge the church about what could be possible. It’s practical too as it helps us to think about how to change things.

Invisible Divides by Natalie Williams and Paul Brown is published by SPCK and is available from Amazon at £7.89 paperback and £7.19 Kindle

[1] The authors helpfully talk about the potential for identity uncertainty where it is possible due to education and work to be externally middle class but still feel very much working class due to background on the inside.

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