Our problems with race and class -what’s at the root of them?

On and off over the past few years I’ve been writing about urban mission. I’ve also had lots of conversations on and off line about the issues and challenges. A key theme keeps coming up it’s the absence of working class and people from non-white ethnic groups in our churches and in our leadership.

In my last article, I started to list out some of the reasons why we see an absence of black, Asian and Hispanic leaders in our churches.  A lot of what I described could apply to class as well as race.  The risk with simply presenting a list is that it may not capture the overarching theme. We may miss the point that there is a root cause to the symptoms we describe.

Failure to see true unity that crosses class and racial barriers is traced back in the New Testament to Gospel issues -think about how Paul challenges Peter about table fellowship and what we see happening in 1 Corinthians and Galatians. This means that it is serious.  That’s exactly why quite a few people have been saying that repentance is needed.

So, what is at the root here? Well, first of all we need to name something that we don’t want to. We want to talk about mistakes, structural issues, timing, lessons to learn etc. However, if we have a situation where we are not prioritising sharing the Gospel with people because of their ethnicity and if we are overlooking people for leadership not because of any deficiency in terms of their gifts or character but because of issues linked to their culture then, there’s a word for that “racism.”

Now, we may think that we are not racists. We would never call someone by a derogatory term? We’d never vote BNP(or even some other more acceptably mainstream parties), we wouldn’t wave banners saying “***** go home.”  At least I hope not, but actually Christians are not immune from temptation in this area. Some of us may need to say honestly that we have been guilty of overt racism.  I know that I have in the past. I also wonder whether we have given as much attention to challenging, correcting and disciplining when this happens.  If someone joins an overtly racist political party, or if they insult and demean someone because of their colour then surely that’s public sin.

But we may have avoided those things and maybe we’ve repented and said sorry for past sin but we’ve only looked at one small part of things, overt racism. However, a lot of racism is more subtle, its covert. It’s about failure to include. Furthermore, I would suggest that its not so much that we hate or despise people from other cultures. It’s a little bit more passive than that, sins of omission rather than commission if you like. It’s not that we go out of our way to exclude others but that we don’t particularly go out of our way to include them either. So by passivity and negligence, people are left on the outside.

Which leads to another side of things.  It’s not just about failure to care for and prioritise gospel work and discipleship among some people but together, nationally our churches chose to prioritise others in the 20th Century. In the 18th century, the Wesleys and Whitefield prioritised preaching the Gospel to ordinary working class people. It meant losing respectability, leaving and being kicked out of church buildings, they were also eventually kicked out of the institutions.

I need to come back to one of the worst sins of the 20th Century. I know this is uncomfortable, I know that God used wrong decisions to bring good and to save some wonderful people. However, a  priority was made to specifically target the elite believing that by seeing some of them saved, this would trickle down. The result of that was that resources were prioritised towards the wealthy and powerful, evangelistic and discipleship methods were developed and refined around their needs and a message was sent out explicitly and implicitly that Christian leadership looked the same as world leadership. I am specifically talking about the focus on camps for public school boys and emphasis on students and graduates. It is not that it was wrong to try and reach them. Rather it was confidence in an explicit strategy as the means to reach Britain. That strategy conformed to and reinforced a class system. Along side that, children were singing

“The rich man in his castle, the poor man at the gate

God made them high and lowly

And ordered their estate.”

I believe that the church bought into a philosophy in stark contrast to what Paul says in 1 Corinthians.

“26 Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy[g] when God called you. 27 Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. 28 God chose things despised by the world,[h] things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. 29 As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God.” [1]

Yet whenever the approach is challenged, I find that people become defensive. The argument is “but look at the fruit, look at people like John Stott, Dick Lucas etc, without the strategy they would not have been saved and then we would not have been blessed by their Bible teaching and leadership.”

I want to suggest three errors in that response.

  1. It assumes that they would not have been saved. Now that’s puzzling not least because the issue I have with the strategy was not that we shouldn’t have tried to reach middle and upper class people with the Gospel but the belief that the strategy for evangelism required a focus on them because of their perceived influence.
  2. It seems to work on the assumption that they were gifted leaders of the church because of what came with their class privileges rather than the work of the Holy Spirit. If we did not have John Stott and Dick Lucas would God not have been able to raise up others who could teach his word powerfully
  3. I think that its based on a theology pulled out of a soundbite rather than Scripture. The quote is that “God’s Work done in God’s way will never lack God’s supply.” It’s attributed to Hudson Taylor and it has a level of proverbial truth. We should do God’s work in God’s way but a corrective to the assumption that doing God’s work in God’s way will always be resourced and fruitful is maybe helpfully tempered by a reading of Elizabeth Elliot’s “These strange ashes.” Furthermore on the other side of the coin, we constantly see in Scripture that God works even when people are seeking evil, never mind when they are just getting it wrong.  That fruit comes out of a decision does not mean the decision was necessarily wise and good. God’s sovereignty is greater than that.

This is not to say that this elitism was the only expression of sin, but it is an example of how we have allowed ourselves to be conformed to our cultures rather than being transformed by the Spirit and being salt and light. It sends out a message that we prioritise and put our trust in people like us. This works its way out in different ways, whether prioritising an elite class, looking out for those like us and discipline new believers to do the same through HUP approaches or favouring those that have the same skin colour, language and food preferences as us.

So there are serious root issues and a need for repentance. That’s a big challenge for us. Are we ready and willing to say that the church in the UK have got things badly wrong at times? A willingness to do this will demonstrate a deeper belief in grace and in justification by faith alone.


[1] 1 Corinthians 1:26 -29.