Ok, so I know that having read that title some of you are already sharpening your doctrinal pitch-forks to administer some ‘correction-in-love’ to this soon to be skewered heretic… but hear me out first… please!
I grew up in the evangelical Church in the U.K where, for what seemed like the first time in a while, there was a growing awareness that the gospel was ‘good news for the poor’… the actual poor, not just the spiritually poor. I went to those (many) seminars at Soul Survivor and other Christian festivals about discovering my calling and became increasingly convinced that God wanted me to devote my life to ‘the least, the last and the lost’ who were generally portrayed to me as those who were socially deprived in some way. Over time, that group of people (and it was ‘that group of people’) became known as those who were ‘marginalised’. Missiologists soon began to write about our call as God’s people to incarnate the gospel message amongst those ‘on the margins’, to speak out for this group in society and to work for social justice as an expression of our Christian faith. Let me be really clear: I STILL BELIEVE ALL OF THAT!
BUT (and it’s a big ‘but’), a number of things have led me to begin to think, shall we say, more broadly than that of late. Firstly, a couple of weeks back Bishop Philip North gave a talk at New Wine in which he appeared to be scathing in his assessment of the distribution of resources in the Church of England, specifically that clergy apparently won’t live in poorer areas and particularly in the North where he ministers. “I am astonished at the number of people Jesus is calling to plant new churches as long as they are in Zones 1 and 2 of the London transport system” is the now oft re-tweeted, much memed quote. I wonder whether it might rather over-state the case that middle-class Anglican clergy are ‘abandoning the poor’ (as was the headline in a national newspaper) – we can all think of lots of clergy (Anglican and otherwise) that are now ministering in some of the poorest communities in the U.K. – but my point is this; it would appear that the Church is not doing such a great job amongst the middle-classes either! Check out the statistics if you wish but particularly amongst those aged 50 or below, membership of churches has dropped dramatically in the last couple of decades – not just in poorer, socially deprived areas but in middle-class ones too. Possible reasons for this would be a subject for another post but the fact remains that the established Christian Church is apparently not sufficiently reaching the middle-classes in the U.K.
The second reason for my missiological crisis is much closer to home. Through a set of circumstances that I will not bore you with, I now find myself living in a very middle-class area for the first time in a long time. By most social markers, I am middle-class (education, earnings, professional status etc) – most members of the clergy are too – but for the reasons explained above, I have always chosen to minister amongst those who aren’t. So I am faced with a problem. I am not well equipped for this context… ‘fish out of water’ springs to mind. The thing is, food boxes around here are called hampers (really nice ones too) and if I were to set up a Job Club we’d need to be advertising jobs with a £70k+ annual salary if I wanted anyone to come! I wouldn’t mind if the people who live in my community were truly horrible and I could ignore them if favour of serving ‘the poor’ in the socially deprived areas of the nearby city… but they’re not. It’d help me with my crisis if my new friends had life so sorted out that they don’t need to experience the hope of the gospel of Jesus… but the more I get to know them, the more I discover they really do! Bottom line: I have absolutely nothing to offer to these people… and that makes me feel vulnerable and, well, not very useful. At least I generally felt pretty good about myself as a middle-class person with something to offer to those who were socially deprived…
Here’s the thing. Of course I have something to offer – the gospel of Jesus, lived out in this ‘alien land’. Some things are simply not context-specific. Even most of our much cherished missional practices still apply; incarnation, contextualisation, missio Dei…
I still have lots of questions though. I’ll finish with a few of them,
- Given the decline in attendance of churches in middle-class areas, is it really just Alpha and a handful of newly re-planted ‘resource churches’ that are our answer?
- When we talk about Pioneering, why do we nearly always target the ‘red dots’ of social deprivation on the map? Is there no need for genuine Christian witness and community in other areas?
- Where are the Pioneers with a genuine calling to ministry in middle-class areas or people-groups? (Contra Bishop Philip, I don’t know of many).
- When was the last time you read a book (or even saw a book) about mission amongst the middle-classes in the U.K.?
- Have we so ‘centralised’ those who are socially deprived in our missional thinking that it is now the middle-classes who are ‘on the margins’?
Ok, I’m ready for the pitch forks now… 😉