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02 March 2015

Alliance Council discusses mission and social class

Alliance Council discusses mission and social class

The Council of the Evangelical Alliance met last week to discuss mission and social class in the UK.

Members and guests heard expert analysis of the current class system by sociologist Jo McKenzie, and the rest of the day was spent talking about how the Church can respond.

"We have a whole set of sociological and physiological studies about what's happening to the poor today and now we have this huge group described by some as the underclass, the benefit class, the chavs," began Dr Dave Landrum, the Evangelical Alliance's director of advocacy.

"How do we connect or disconnect with this idea of class in our society in terms of mission? How is the Church reaching the poorest and most vulnerable in society?"

Throughout the day the Council and guests heard from those working in some of the poorest parts of the UK, who shared their stories about the important role the Church can, and must, play.

John Kirkby of Christians Against Poverty (CAP) said it was difficult to express just what it's like to be poor in the UK today.

"But the good news is the Church is the answer. There's no other group of people doing this [work]."

CAP was started by John 25 years ago after he had been living in a bedsit with his two young daughters, and four years after he had become a Christian.

Of those CAP works with, 65 per cent have visited a GP for mental health issues, one third have considered suicide and just under five per cent have attempted to take their own life.

When the charity's founder was asked about the most important thing he had learnt while carrying out this work, he said: "I have never been to anything like [Council], but when I think about the power of the Church I don't think we have truly grasped what's in our hands. We are the largest providers of face-to-face debt advice and we have 850 churches bringing money and education to those who need it most."

Jesus's Church in the UK is the "most motivated thing walking the earth" to do this work, John said.

While he said that governments lack both the ideas and the energy to tackle these issues, he also said he valued many of the efforts of local and national government 

"We have all the motivation to sort this out. The Church is waking up to the commandments to help the poor. I believe this nation will change in my lifetime, and it will be the Church of Jesus who will do it."

He finished by saying: "As Christians we need to get off our blessed backsides and go and do it."

Margaret Ferguson, who for the last nine years has ministered in working class, protestant, unionist and loyalist communities in inner-city Belfast, Northern Ireland, also shared first-hand knowledge.

Along with the lack of jobs – thanks to the decline of traditional industry – lack of education, addictions and mental health issues, Margaret said a key issue in her community is the extremely low self-esteem many face.

"These are people who have been told for so long that they can't do anything."

They have lived with violence for 30 years and still face life under paramilitary influence. "People do not leave these communities, they become insulated."

The biggest, and first, thing the Church has to do when it comes into these communities is build relationships, she said.

"We have all these social issues, but so did Jesus. I believe building relationships is key. You have to go outside the doors of the church, because they're not going to come in. We need to provide opportunities to talk and to listen – it is important that their issues are heard."

Margaret starting running a women's group in her church, and there the women told her about their concern for the elderly in their community.

"So they started running a café for the elderly. We trained them to cook – some of them hadn't even peeled a carrot before."

Since then, the list of programmes the church runs has grown unbelievably. But the key was building initial relationships with this community, earning their trust and showing them what the Church can offer.

A big question that was considered at Council on Thursday was whether the Church is too middle class.

The upper and middle class are disproportionately represented in church attendance figures, while the working class, or what some are now calling the under-class, are massively underrepresented; the total UK adult population is three per cent upper class, but 20 per cent of churchgoers are from this class group.

Carl Beech, the director of church planting for Elim, reflected on the Council meeting.

"I'm striving for a new language. Is there a kingdom class that we can all adopt?

"I've noticed that working class people are very spontaneous, but when you receive Christ you start thinking about your destiny. Can we adopt the spontaneity of the working class and that destiny of the middle class and have a kingdom class?"

And how should the problem of this misrepresentation of class in the Church be solved? According to Carl "The deeply theological answer to this is: do stuff – and be authentic." Whether it's a mother and baby group, a job club or a knitting club.

Kenny Borthwick from Edinburgh, Dai Hankey from the Welsh Valleys, Nims Obunge from Tottenham and Tani Omideyi from Liverpool also gave valuable contributions during the day.

The Evangelical Alliance's recent Faith in politics? research found that evangelicals consider poverty and inequality as the top issue facing the UK today. Our research on poverty in the UK will be released in summer 2015.


Image: Carl Beech speaking at Council