What exactly do we mean by “working class” and “middle class?” Those are natural and important questions as we talk about how we reach working class communities with the Gospel.
Here are definitions that I found very quickly on the internet for “working class.”
“The social group consisting of people who are employed for wages, especially in manual or industrial work.” (Initial Google search).
“The working class or the working classes are the group of people in a society who do not own much property, who have low social status, and who do jobs which involve using physical skills rather than intellectual skills.”
I also remember the comedian Rob Beckett once defining working class as “If your telly is bigger than your book-case.”
Generally speaking class is thought of in terms of economic earning power, status in society and the type of work you do.
However, the feeling I get when people talk about “class” when it comes to politics and church that there’s a little more going on. The definitions appear to be a little more subjective, the factors a little more complex and the boundaries a little more-fuzzy.
- Class becomes associated with attitudes, food, fashion, hobbies, music etc.
- Class is to some extent to do with how you self-identify. Do you consider yourself to be “working class” or “middle class”?
- Those definitions and identifications may actually be more tribal still. What one community considers to be the markers of “class” may not be recognised elsewhere.
- As traditional industries have declined, whole communities have been left without meaningful work for 2 or 3 generations now so that many working class people find themselves unemployed. There is perhaps a “left-behind class.”
- This has fed into politics where for example many people felt left behind and cut off not just economically but from the traditional political parties leading to a surge in support at recent elections for alt-right groups and then for Brexit.
Now for some further reflections.
- Some of the subjective views include a high level of prejudice because stereotypes are superimposed onto working class people and communities. The implicit message in the Collins definition above is that if you are destined for manual work, then you don’t need an intellectual education. This leads to the assumption imposed from outside that working-class people cannot cope with stretching academic study. This is absolute patronising rubbish.
- My experience is that I grew up in South Bradford and attended the local Comprehensive School in the large council estate. We got along together, and no-one was trying to second guess your class. Now I live in the urban West Midlands on an estate and again, no-one is trying to second guess whether people are working or middle class. However, it seems to be that the people who are mainly obsessed with class are sociologists, politicians and Christians (sadly, especially evangelical and especially reformed Christians). Class messages come across strongly when evangelical Christians talk about focusing on public schools and Oxbridge students in order to reach the future decision makers and leaders. However, class obsession is also seen when Christians working in urban contexts declare that only working-class believers can evangelise, pastor and train working class people. I find both sides of this split deeply disturbing.
- I want to temper the criticism above by acknowledging that some of those responses from working class planters comes out of sheer frustration.
- Most of us involved in Gospel ministry do not meet the definitions of “working class” listed above -except perhaps financially.
When I go back to the New Testament, I discover a Gospel that does not recognise boundaries created by class, race or culture. I see Peter and Philip witnessing to Gentiles. I see Paul putting aside anything that will hinder the gospel and I see churches where slaves and slave owners, Gentiles and Jews, women and men, young and men worship God together.
Similarly, in history I see God moving people like William Carey and Hudson Taylor willingly crossing cultures to share the Gospel. I also see multiple examples of when this happened it leading to generations of indigenous believers, sharing the Gospel, leading churches and training up future leaders.
That’s more the spirit I want to see when it comes to urban mission in the UK.
Some of the people who are asking “What is working class” are asking because they want to serve God on our estates and in our inner cities. They are worried because they look at their own education, work background and relative prosperity and wonder if they could serve the gospel in the contexts they are considering a calling to. This is made worse when they read and hear comments to the effect that only working-class people can reach, teach, lead and train in working class contexts.
If that is you, then I want to encourage you.
- How do you know if you are called to a working-class community? Well as Stephen Kneale recently argued on his blog, has a church set you apart and asked you to step into this role?
- Be yourself. Working class people are more likely to spot and be put off by a phoney than they are to reject someone because they are a little bit different.
- Be ready to learn.
- Be ready to make your life with people, love them, be faithful.
- Know that when you step onto any council estate or into any inner city area then you are going to meet a lot of challenging situations, broken homes, debt, addiction, racism, isolation, domestic abuse etc. Be ready to love.
- Know that when you are part of a local church with estate and inner city believers then you are going to be surrounded by gifted, growing believers.
- Place your confidence in the sovereign God and his Gospel.