Being Working Class in the Church

Recently a friend relayed an episode to me in which they offered a difficult answer to a senior church minister.  The minister in question, bemoaning the fact that their churches were struggling for membership, was surprised to hear my friend’s response.  “Go into your churches and listen to the accents of the other minsters there” they said, “then you’ll find your answer”.  My friend explained to me that the area in question was a very working class one, but when they had spent time there, only one minister they met had a local accent.

It would be easy to dismiss this story if one wanted to.  Surely this senior minister is working with whatever is at their disposal?  If the people going forward for ministry are not originally from that area, what can they do?  But of course this story, and such a dismissal only reinforce the fact that there is a problem here.  The statistics bear it out as well.  A recent YouGov poll found that 62% of churchgoers are middle class, and just 38% working class.  Of course it could be argued that it’s too simplistic to see things in terms of the traditional three tiered class system, but this would be to circumvent the issue at hand.  However we view class, the fact remains that those from poorer backgrounds are coming to church less.

There may be some reading this who struggle to see what I’m getting at here, or maybe even think that class is an outdated idea.  For those people, believe me I understand, but let’s dig a little deeper into this.

The dominant culture of our society is middle class.  Why?  Because middle class people can afford to be the shapers of culture and therefore of society.  Think of how many musicians, actors, businessmen and women, and politicians come from middle class backgrounds.  Sure there are some that don’t, but they are the exception rather than the rule.  Why is this?  It’s a question of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’.  All good parents want the best for their children, that goes without saying, but whereas with the haves that may mean music lessons, private tuition, a beautiful house near a good school, for the have nots it means three meals a day, shoes that fit, and a roof that doesn’t leak.

You may think I’m overstating this.  I’m not.  The second scenario is for a lucky working class child.  I have friends and close family members who go without regular meals to feed their children.  I personally benefitted from parents that would willingly and regularly do this as I grew up.

This is not controversial stuff, though it should be.  Indeed, even the Church of England’s House of Bishops recognises the fact that growing inequality and child poverty is a direct result of immoral political decisions.  What this all means is that middle class people dominate the world of the arts, of politics, of business, of science, of the church.  They become the self-perpetuating shapers of our culture because they benefit from those things in the first place in a way that young working class people not only do not, but cannot.

The church must do more to speak into this situation, to call it out for what it is, not play into it all the more.  It’s true that the church does commendable work fighting poverty and inequality.  I love it for that.  From the Trussell Trust, the UK’s single biggest provider of food banks, to Christians Against Poverty (CAP), who do brilliant work helping people learn to better manage their finances.  The will is clearly there.  So why so few working class worshipers on a Sunday morning?

The key, I think, is culture.  When a working class person walks into a church, what do they feel?  When they speak to the people in the church, do those people reflect a reality they recognise?  If they stick around, how do they think these people see them?  One of the things I have noticed about Christians is that the longer they are Christian, the more disconnected they seem to become from normality.  It’s true of me and I daresay it may be at least partially true of you also.  There’s some good to take from this – we should be maturing as Christians and as people, but this should not mean that we change who we fundamentally are so that the average person on the street can’t relate to us anymore.  We need to be real.

A few years ago, I was listening to a radio interview between the DJ and an academic whose name escapes me.  She was sharing some of the findings from her research into class and opportunity.  She explained that it’s not simply that working class people are afforded fewer opportunities, though this is a large factor, but that whilst the practise of ‘networking’ is seen as the norm for middle class people seeking employment or other opportunities, for working class people it’s out of the question.  The working class culture of work is that any opportunity you may be lucky enough to get, will come your way because your hard work has been noticed.  To go begging for it is to gain an opportunity without having to work for it first, and that is fundamentally dishonest.  For working class people, you let your hard work do the talking.  If opportunities arise from that, brilliant.  Further to this though, even when networking is an option, such as by building relationships through university societies and the like, money is all too often a barrier.

So what can the church take from this?  Working class communities often have a strong sense of morality, and there can often be a pride that goes with a sense of morality.  Certainly my working class roots, rightly or wrongly, are a source of great pride for me.  My family has what it has because it’s made difficult sacrifices whilst working hard for those things.  This is particularly true of my parents.  A part of that pride is the sense that, again rightly or wrongly, ‘we are not a charity case’.  This can be a very strong feeling, and very difficult for the church to work with.  On the one hand it means an aversion to handouts, but on the other hand it can mean not seeking to gain without hard work.  Practically, this can mean that if a working class person is not invited to be a part of something, rarely will they feel that they have the right to be.

One of the great tragedies of all this is that it means that there is an awful lot of talent going to waste.  It is therefore critical if we are to raise and nurture people effective in various church ministries, that we actively offer opportunities when it seems a person could have, or could develop, talents in that area.  I was lucky enough to belong to churches at various times that had people who did that for me.  They know who they are, and I will be eternally grateful.  On the other hand, we must never, ever assume that a person knows they can be a part of something: knows they can join the prayer team, knows they can be on the PCC, knows they can offer to preach, to lead, to serve.  Believe me when I say that this feels like rejection, and it is a rejection that is often suffered in silence.  But, and this is important, know that when you ask a person to take an active role in ministry, you are not doing them a favour.  They are not there to receive a condescending pat on the head for trying ‘in spite of it all’.  They are, as you are, equal partners in the body of Christ, and they are, as you are, there to work to build the kingdom of heaven on Earth.

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