Author(s)Kirsten Birkett
Date 16 May 2023
Category Class
Tags Class

Throughout the Bible, God shows his heart for the poor and vulnerable, and as Christians we are to share his values. It is good to care for the poor. Should this be the powerhouse of our work to reach people?

Poverty and class are not the same issue, but they are closely related. In general, middle class people are wealthier than working class people; and there are definitely people in severe deprivation in the schemes, estates or on the streets of Britain. One of the signifiers of middle classness is the university degree, and degree still increases average earning, even with student loans to pay off.

There are plenty of people in poverty in Britain.

In 2020/21 13.4 million, 20% of the population, were considered in relative poverty after housing costs, and 11.1 million (17%) in absolute poverty.[1]

Poverty is complicated or made worse by immigration problems, and immigrants are amongst the poorest in the country. Mental ill-health also contributes to the problems. Poverty itself can bring about mental ill-health; not having enough causes great anxiety; and the cycles of powerlessness and deprivation are very depressing. Escape via substance abuse is also common. Domestic violence is also a  serious issue and is not getting any better. None of these problems is unique to the poor, but they are all worse amongst the poor, and they are all made worse by being poor.

My project is not about helping the poor per se, although that is obviously a good thing for Christians to do. But even more than that, we are interested in bringing the good news of Jesus to the poor. That is the greatest gift we can give any person, for it is of eternal value, not just for this life. It is also true that coming to know Christ, and the present-life benefits that brings, can also help people materially. We want to help people in both ways; and if we are to reach people, we need to understand how they live and go to where they are, emotionally as well as physically.

It is hard to escape poverty, and we want to help people do that. Yet what is the best way to do it? McConnell, surprisingly, says to stop the mercy ministries. Churches should stop their social justice programs; food banks, warm banks and so on. Why? Because, essentially, they are often carried out in a degrading way. ‘People can tell when we are happy to share the church’s food with them, but wouldn’t share our own.’[2] It is very easy for people to become projects, rather than people. Churches are willing to feed them, counsel them or otherwise aid them, but not befriend them. Not really. As McConnell says:

[W]ould we sit down for a meal with those we are serving and supporting outside the confines of a church-based project? Or are projects a helpful way to do good to people ‘not like us’ while keeping them held firmly at arm’s length?’ [3]

The problem with charity projects, or social action, are their inherent judgementalism.

Most project leaders and volunteers have a desperate desire to give dignity to everyone they help. However, any one of us can slip into a ‘saviour complex’ that gives us an air of superiority – this is something we all need to watch in our own hearts. Also, no matter how much we try to run our projects in a way that honours people, there is something inherently undignified about turning up at an unfamiliar location where everyone knows you are in need.[4]

Such things can cause resentment, not gratitude. ‘People can feel patronized and belittled by acts of charity if they perceive an attitude of superiority among those who are supporting them’.[5]

Mercy ministries, many commentators agree, are not the way to win the poor. Food banks and soup kitchens may be needed; so may be debt counselling and warm spaces. But needed isn’t the same as wanted or appreciated; how would you feel if you had to accept charity for your food and shelter? It is embarrassing, and does not make people feel grateful.[6]

It may be good to help with such practical things, and if in your area there is real need, that may be a loving thing to do. However, find out just what is needed before thinking that is a useful way to direct church resources. Talk to people and ask them what would help most. It may be that what is really useful is to help people to access government aid, which for all its faults, is considerable. Find out if there are other social action projects already running, and get involved in them rather than duplicating efforts with something new. Better still, use your participation in an existing programme to build relationships. Befriend people. Talk to them. Relate to them as people. Or just do that, without the social action. Several times while talking to people about these articles, I have heard the comment that social action projects are middle-class ideas to make sooth middle-class consciences, not what the local poor would like to see set up.

At the very least, realise that poverty not just about money. After all, as said above there is a lot of help for the poor. The NHS is actually, in world terms, an astonishingly good system. British social services offer a great deal of aid, once the bureaucracy can be negotiated. But that’s not all that poverty is about. Poverty is complicated. You may be living on an urban council estate, with enough income from benefits to have food and even heating, because your flat is fairly small. But you may be kept awake all night with sounds of violence outside. You may be afraid to go out and so spend most of your time inside. There may be too many of you inside so you never experience privacy or peace. Someone at home may be abusive so that you deliberately leave and become homeless rather than stay there. Or you may be technically safe there, but it is dreary and always unpleasant and you have no idea how to get out, how to become better educated or get a good job or live anywhere better. Poverty is debilitating.

Do hospitality, not just food banks

I’ve found that, so often, churches don’t seriously consider the working-class communities on their doorstep unless it is in connection with social action.[7]

Too often, our projects involve doing things for or to people, not with them. To engage with people, involve them in church life and our own lives, is harder; but that is to treat people as people.

Meeting people does not have to happen inside your home, if others are not comfortable there. Social meeting can happen in other places; hospitality outside the home. I noticed that a local pub was full on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day; that is where people were meeting and gathering, sharing their lives and celebrations. I can remember once I had to visit a church on a Sunday morning to hear a student give a placement talk. I had arrived too early, and the only place open where I could get a coffee was the local pub. On that early hour on a Sunday morning the pub was full of men, sitting alone. Where were the men from church, to meet them and get to know them? It probably wouldn’t occur to most Christian men to visit the pub on a Sunday morning; but what an opportunity!

We have discussed in an earlier article the problems of hospitality via the middle-class dinner party. Many writers on working class culture agree that a drop-in culture is more common; something that middle class people struggle with. However, if we give up some of our ideas of what ‘entertaining’ requires, it could be easier. Let people drop in, and just be there. Let our houses be more porous.

Of course, if people are to drop in, they have to be within easy distance – we have to be living nearby. That raises another issue, of where we live. Most middle class evangelicals live in comfortable middle class enclaves. This will be discussed in our next article, and may be the evangelical church’s greatest challenge in reaching the working classes.







[2] Mez McConnell, The Least, the Last and the Lost: Understanding Poverty in the UK and the Responsibility of the Local Church (Leyland, Evangelical Press; 2021), p. 68.

[3] McConnell, p. 69.

[4] Natalie Williams and Paul Brown, Invisible Divides: Class, Culture and Barriers to Belonging in the Church (London: SPCK, 2022), p. 27.

[5] Williams and Brown, p. 28.

[6] I would recommend that everyone read George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London (London: Penguin Modern Classics, 1966).

[7] Williams and Brown, p. 13.