One of my former Deacons used to pray “break our hearts for what breaks yours”. I remember while prayer walking Devonport, where I minister, with him and seeing the poverty and knowing that it breaks the heart of God. A few days ago Carl Beech Tweeted “There are two conversions in the Christian life. Conversion to Christ and when God breaks your heart for the poor.”
Over the last few years the church (like much of society) has had a focus on gender and racial justice and issues on human sexuality, and quite rightly so, but in the process the issues of class have been forgotten. The working class have been forgotten by the church and not just the poorest. A point made eloquently by Canon Gary Jenkins in a recent blog post on the issue (https://www.psephizo.com/life-ministry/where-are-the-working-class/)
It is my experience that the church is becoming increasingly middle class, to the point where the working class feel that they don’t see people like themselves, not just in the pulpit but also in the pews.
This plays out in church planting. Most new churches are clone churches in areas of similar socio-demographic areas or in “student” areas. With very little church planting into deprived or marginal communities (estates or inner-city). You see this in books, conferences or festivals where most of the speakers/writers are from “successful” suburban churches or para-church organisations, very few from small or inner city churches, very few indigenous non-tertiary educated speakers or writers get the same profile.
So areas like Devonport are not just “de-churched” they have become unchurched, while there are 5,000 people here, there are only two small churches, one with under 10 regulars; if you found that in any other part of the world, you would call the people of Devonport an unreached people group. And yet we exist in the United Kingdom.
The wonderful poem in Philippians 2, which Paul uses to explain who Jesus was (so we could be like him), includes the wonderful phrase “When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human!” (MSG). As Red Letter Christians we focus on the words of Jesus, but sadly we don’t get many words of his in the Nativity account, but actions speak louder than words we are told! So what does the incarnation of Jesus teach us?
As we begin preparation for Jesus coming at Christmas, it is good to look at his first coming. Before he is even born he is an outcast, rejected by his own family and the people who do visit are not royal dignitaries, as befits a King, but dirty, smelly shepherds! They were considered not just working class, but an underclass, they were irreligious people who worked hard, broke the Sabbath and ate what they could (for a full explanation of the scandal of the Manger read David Instone-Brewer’s recent article in Christianity Magazine – http://www.biblecontexts.com/2020/11/the-first-christmasfamily-argument.html)
I wonder what would happen if some dirty, smelly shepherds turned up in most churches on a Sunday morning, how would they be treated?
The problem is most Christians have not been converted twice, just the once, they have not understood that when Jesus said he came to preach Good News to the poor, that he meant it, and that as followers we were meant to do the same. We have not understood that to reach the poorest, we can’t do that at arms-length, because Jesus didn’t do mission in that way, instead he incarnated the Gospel.
So what do we need? We need Christians to live, work and worship in marginal communities. Not for a few years but for decades. Incarnating the Gospel, being salt and light, living out the Kingdom of God among the poorest in our nation.