Not Our Problem?

It’s great to help those less fortunate than ourselves, but we don’t want to have to sit next to them in a pew on Sunday.

One of the constant themes of this blog over the years is that churches in the UK need to do more when it comes to world mission. Reaching out to the modern equivalents of Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth is an essential part of a church’s calling and, to be honest, a sign of its health. However, for the next couple of days, I’d like to reverse my usual pattern.

For a moment, think back to the last mission agency publicity that you saw; what was the message? Almost certainly, the message had some focus on the poor and disadvantaged. It may have been an appeal to help with poverty relief in some way – perhaps child sponsorship. Or it may have talked about planting churches in an isolated rural location, or in a huge urban slum. Perhaps the organisation was looking for support for a ministry supporting addicts or the victims of gang violence. This list goes on.

The fact is that the preponderance of British missionary publicity features those who are poor and disadvantaged around the world. At the risk of seeming cynical, mission agencies target develop their publicity in ways that are likely to attract people to support them in one way or another and messages about the world’s poor are likely to bring in money, prayer and recruits. In one sense this is how it should be, Brits are wealthy by worldwide standards and we should be prepared to help those who are less fortunate than ourselves (though we should not forget that the super-rich need Jesus, too). However, I am intrigued by the fact that while many British Christians and churches are passionate to help the poor around the world, we seem broadly indifferent to the deprived communities on our doorsteps. We are all in favour of planting churches in Kibera in Nairobi and supporting drug addicts in Colombia, but less keen on serving addicts and planting churches in the council estates that surround our towns and cities.

The church in the UK is overwhelmingly middle-class. Indeed, part of the process of socialisation into the church is to take a working-class kid like me and make me middle-class (a project which was only partially successful). There are large tracts of the UK where there is no evangelical witness of any sort and these are overwhelmingly in areas of urban or rural poverty. Why is this?

We are all in favour of planting churches in Kibera in Nairobi and supporting drug addicts in Colombia, but less keen on serving addicts and planting churches in the council estates that surround our towns and cities. Click To Tweet

I wonder whether we are happy to help the poor in other parts of the world because that keeps them at a distance. It’s great to help those less fortunate than ourselves, but we don’t want to have to sit next to them in a pew on Sunday. We don’t want to be exposed (and we especially don’t want our kids to be exposed) to their awkward fashion sense and provocative language and opinions. It might appear that I am being uncharitable here, but I am struck by the extent to which middle-class “niceness” is equated with Christian character in many evangelical circles.

It's great to help those less fortunate than ourselves, but we don't want to have to sit next to them in a pew on Sunday. Click To Tweet

Globally, Christianity is a religion of the poor and disadvantaged and globally, Christianity is growing very rapidly. In the UK, Christianity is mainly a religion of the middle-classes and by and large, in the UK Christianity is not thriving. While correlation does not prove causation, it should give us pause to think.

A couple of things in closing. I should give a shout out to Mez McConnel and Stephen Kneale who have prompted me to think about these issues. I am also aware that I’ve made a number of generalisations in this post and not sought to substantiate any of them with evidence. There are, of course, exceptions to everything I’ve said, but the generalisations still hold.

2 replies on “Not Our Problem?”

Eddie, it’s unusual to read one of your posts and disagree with it. Perhaps I’ve had the opposite of a sheltered Christian experience in my decades in England! While I hear/read this message reasonably often, I’ve rarely run across a church like this. I guess my experience is odd, but it has been replicated in Reading, a post-industrial village in Somerset, and now on the edge of the New Forest. Currently, our most successful outreach is CAP, and it has meant challenging some in the church to be willing to love English people who have quite a different outlook on life to them. Most have embraced that.

What does “make me middle-class” even mean? I can’t see that the English classes are what they were even 20 years ago, let alone 70, 100, or several hundred.

Thank you for this. You are not being uncharitable. I agree with you that in the west we do not want to get too close to those whose values, tastes, smell, language etc. are so far “below” us. But I think the generosity of western churches in giving to poverty stricken people in distant places has the added “blessing” of convincing those who send their funds abroad, that this what it means to help the poor. Since we are sending so much money there, we are doing what needs to be done. The concept of interacting with, fellowshipping with, sitting with, these people, never occurs to us. Locally, we send money to homeless shelters, soup kitchens, camps for the poor and more, that are right next door. But we do not interact with them or have them in our churches. We think we do not need to. We are sending money and that fulfills the requirement.
We need more churches where the benevolent funds are being spent on their own church members. It can happen. A missionary effort to get our people to sell their large homes and move into poor neighbourhoods, build a new network of friends, and influence them with the Gospel.

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