Author(s)Kirsten Birkett
Date 21 March 2023
Category Class
Tag Class

Evangelicals in Britain are overwhelmingly white and middle class. 93% of evangelicals in England label themselves ‘White British’. They have a high average age with 58% having been born before 1960, 32% in the 1960s or 1970s and only 10% since 1980. They belong to a wide range of Christian denominations, but at least a third are Church of England. 73% are higher professionals or intermediate professionals. 41% have postgraduate qualifications. In the May 2015 general election 31% of English evangelicals voted Conservative, 25% Labour, 17% Liberal Democrat, 11.5% UKIP and 8% Green.[1]

It is good when any people come to know the living God and worship him in church. The problem, however, when any group is dominant in any setting is that it assumes that its own way of doing things is normal. The way things are done becomes not just the right way, but the only way. It is very easy in such contexts to be oblivious to the way in which the majority way actually excludes people who come from a different group.

Evangelicals are aware of their class profile, and in many cases actively fight against it. They realise that evangelical ministry must disrupt class boundaries. They know that the gospel means ‘the equality, dignity and value of all people, regardless of social status, in the family of God and to speak of a spiritual reality that should be reflected in the corporate life of the church and the local congregation’.[2] Moreover, many will teach that

… social reconciliation between human beings was seen to be a necessary outworking of the reconciliation with God achieved through Christ’s death. The grace and inclusion that God extends to people through Christ was understood to necessitate demonstrable grace and the inclusion of all people within the  church community, including those of different social classes, in order to reflect the nature of the gospel to the world.[3]

People in evangelical ministry also acknowledge their middle-class way of doing ministry.

Certain forms of Bible teaching, an emotionally restrained mode of communication, styles of music used in worship, rationalist apologetic methods and the corporate business-like mood of many evangelical services were identified as potentially intimidating or alien to working-class culture and were felt to contribute to a ‘self-perpetuating system’ of disengagement.[4]

Yet despite understanding all this, and despite their determination for class not to be an issue, evangelicals seem to have been singularly ineffective in eliminating the boundaries.

Leadership in the evangelical church

There are some working-class people in ministry leadership within British evangelical churches. On the whole, however, they can feel very isolated, as any minority does: “you go to Christian conferences and the male speakers are different kinds of men to working-class men”.[5] The style of middle-class leadership, moreover, tends to be very different from working class culture: distinctive in dress and grooming, with a certain kind of humour and (as mentioned above) emotionally restrained. Working class culture, on the other hand, is ‘more open, upfront and passionate’. Preaching and teaching the Bible and evangelism – practices central to evangelical ministry – all seem to be done in a distinctly middle-class way.

Noah expressed his feeling that there is 'a glass ceiling with regard to leadership' within evangelicalism in relation to class; working- class leaders can feel a lack of legitimation despite their shared commitment to the theological and doctrinal positions that are valued within the movement’. Middle class ways of doing things ‘are more easily accepted as the 'right' way to do things.[6]

Working-class people, then, even when gifted, properly trained and committed to ministry, can feel considerable doubts about being ‘the wrong sort of person’ for Christian ministry.[7] ‘People like us don't do it’ appears to be a common feeling – evangelical ministry is ‘not for the likes of us’. Even those who are quite certain and confident that they possess the New Testament qualifications for leadership can still feel like frauds.[8]

Working class in the pews

Churches can generate estrangement even where the ideals of equality and inclusivity exist. That can be precisely because people come into contact with other classes, and are confronted with the difference. For instance, daily personal struggles that poorer people face, of living on a knife edge, and the worries and weariness of financial burdens, makes life very different from those without financial burdens; these ‘can produce feelings of isolation and distance from middle-class people who don’t experience such struggle’.[9] I can remember the church worker who was asked by a couple in the congregation why he wasn’t travelling home to visit his sick mother. They couldn’t imagine what would be holding him back. He had to answer that he couldn’t buy a ticket that day because there was no money in his account. That had simply not occurred to them. They had probably never in their adult lives had no money in their bank accounts.

When daily struggles and issues are very different, just how do you share honestly in a home group? Both the poor and the rich can be very uncomfortable with honest sharing; the poor feeling a sense of shame to confess poverty, the rich feeling a sense of burden or guilt that they are expected to cough up money to help (or not knowing if it’s even appropriate to suggest it). Our society at large has deep inequalities, and these create ‘hidden, embodied and psychosocial injuries’.[10] Working-class Christians can and do feel shame when the Christians around them seem to have so many more privileges than they do, and they feel judged for their lack.

Living on the edge financially is stressful. Worry, guilt and shame can be constant companions; this can lead to anger or resentment when people who have ‘never struggled for anything in their lives ... are given the power to tell you how you should behave.’ Middle class people can certainly face crises in their lives, but they are likely to be quite different sorts of crises. It is easy for a working class hearer to think that the middle class preacher has no idea of the realities of life faced. Moreover, such feelings of alienation are likely to be made worse by the ‘emotional tempo and middle-class restraint embodied in the act of preaching.’[11]

If I go to a church and I'm a working-class man and I hear the middle-class preacher preach I'm probably not going to get any hint that he has struggle in his life, therefore, I'm going to say he can't talk to me because he doesn't know what I've been through. And when he tells me about God's love and God's provision I'll be, like, 'It's alright for you, you've got your inheritance and you've got all like whatever, nice stuff in life: you can't talk to me'. When he talks to me about being forgiven and Christ's righteousness, I'll be like 'Well, that's all right for you, but you haven't done the bad things I've done'.[12]

Ministry resources for working class people

A common theme in working class comments about evangelicalism is the inappropriateness of most ministry resources. Evangelistic courses, discipleship courses and other ministry materials appear to be almost universally produced by and for middle class people. Those in ministry to working class audiences struggle to find materials they can use.

… you've got this self-perpetuating system. All the books that are written by British evangelicals are about middle-class Christianity and then that feeds even more into the system. And it means that when a working-class guy goes to get a book to help him in his Christian walk, he is forced to either acclimatize to middle-class culture and start becoming something that he isn't, or he says 'Forget this, this isn't for me'. Nothing tells me in these bookshops about how I deal with a baby mother who hates my guts and who won't let me see my kids and I've got to work out as a Christian what I do now. Am I free to marry someone else? Do I go through the court to get visitation rights? Or do I pray and fast and wait to see? What do I do? A young guy can't get a book on what do I do when I've just left a gang and there's the gang trying to get me back and I want to follow Jesus and another situation's come up and my family's threatened and the gang can help me and the church can't – what do I do?[13]

It is not as if British evangelicals deliberately try to exclude working class people, or working class ministry. On the contrary, as we have seen there is a great deal of interest in evangelising the working class. There seems, however, to be a massive blind spot when it comes to doing it. In practice, ministry style and resourcing is for middle class people without a sense of how exclusive this is.

Making evangelicalism more available to working class people is a clear priority of the gospel. Barriers should be being broken down, not reinforced. To do so, however, middle class evangelicals will need to become far more conscious of the way in which their culture embodies values that are not self-evident and are (at best) only one way to live Christianly. The gospel is far wider than is currently being practiced.

 

 

[1] Greg Smith and Linda Woodhead ‘Religion and Brexit: populism and the Church of England’, Religion, State and Society, 2018, 46.3, 206–223.

[2] Joanne McKenzie, ‘A different class? Anglican evangelical leaders’ perspectives on social class’, pp. 170–189  in Abby Day (ed.), Contemporary Issues in the Worldwide Anglican Communion: Powers and Pieties (Farnham: Ashgate, 2016), p. 176.

[3] McKenzie, ‘A Different Class?’, p. 176.

[4] McKenzie, ‘A Different Class?’, p. 178.

[5] Joanne McKenzie, ‘”The Person God Made Me to Be”: Navigating Working-Class and Christian Identities in English Evangelical Christianity’, Sociological Research Online, 22.1, 1- 11, p. 5.

[6] McKenzie, ‘The Person God Made Me to Be’, p. 6.

[7] McKenzie, ‘The Person God Made Me to Be’, p. 6.

[8] McKenzie, ‘The Person God Made Me to Be’, p. 6.

[9] McKenzie, ‘A Different Class?’, p. 182.

[10] McKenzie, ‘The Person God Made Me to Be’, p. 2.

[11] McKenzie, ‘The Person God Made Me to Be’, p. 7.

[12] Quoted in McKenzie, ‘The Person God Made Me to Be’, p. 7.

[13] Quoted in McKenzie, The Person God Made Me to Be’, p. 7.