The Church should be a multicultural expression of all peoples worshipping and serving God as one. So what difference does it make that one set of cultural values is so dominant in London's churches?
There’s few things more British than the class system, and nothing more British than awkwardness in talking about class. Two-thirds of us refuse to be categorised into a particular class. Instead, from the security guard to the managing director, most of us position ourselves as somewhere in the middle.
Yet for all the discomfort, it definitely matters, and it needs to be talked about – in church and out of church.
- At school, white boys receiving free school meals perform markedly worse than children of any other group.
- The difference in life expectancy between 60 year-old males in families living in the most and least disadvantaged fifth neighbourhoods increased from 4.1 years in 2001 to 5.0 years in 2015.
- A 2015 YouGov survey of 7,000 adults found that 62 percent of regular churchgoers were middle class and 38 percent working class. The same survey found that twice as many married working-class men had never attended church compared to middle-class men (17 percent compared to 9 percent).
The language of class appeared at around the same time as London City Mission was established in 1835 as a way to describe how a rapidly urbanising
society was divided into industry labourers, managers and owners.
Much of the traditional working class in inner London feels squeezed from both sides.
Their jobs are increasingly poorly-paid and insecure, and they are priced out of their own homes and communities by incoming young professionals driving up property prices.
This feeds into a belief among the working class that they are victims of a system that
is fundamentally against them, that people in power and authority – teachers, police, government – are out to trip them up.
As a hierarchical institution, the church is often caught up in this general suspicion
– exacerbated by the fact that, no matter the actual make-up of the congregation, the dominant culture in churches is almost always middle-class. Churches tend to politeness, teaching by rational explanation, and conformity.
None of these cultural values is bad, but equally, none of them goes to the heart of a community living under the lordship of Jesus Christ – sharing in love, grace and mutual submission.
The early church clearly got the point about an entirely new community, and struggled with it from the beginning.
Small communities made up of unthinkable combinations of Jews and Greeks, slave and free, men and women who gathered to worship, teach and eat together in remembrance of Jesus Christ.
Almost every letter Paul penned to these communities deals with the practical complexities of such diverse groups of people sharing in fellowship.
Today, when the church invites working-class people into Kingdom of God, do we also expect them to abandon their own backgrounds and become culturally middle-class?
One London City Missionary describes belonging to a church in which he was the only adult who did not hold at least an undergraduate degree as an awkward and alienating experience.
Some people working-class people even feel unable to approach their middle-class church leader with pastoral issues.
That is why it is significant that London City Missionaries are typically not from middle class backgrounds: one significant cultural barrier to sharing the gospel is cleared.
And for all these reasons, London City Mission is investing in such projects as the two-year Pioneer Programme, designed as intensive discipleship and evangelism training for people who would not otherwise be able to access this kind of training.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Changing London, our free quarterly magazine.