Recommended books & reviews

Is church just for the middle class?

Excerpts from the new book: Invisible Divides: Class, Culture & Barriers to Belonging by Natalie Williams & Paul Brown (SPCK, 2022)


Paul: I remember the culture shock I experienced when I first walked into a church as a 25 year old bricklayer.

I’d only gone because my girlfriend persuaded me. I felt completely out of my comfort zone. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know where to sit or when to stand. The bloke playing the piano and singing was the type me and my mates would have laughed at if he’d walked into our pub.

Nothing the same

I knew nothing of God, Jesus or church at all. If I wasn’t at work, I was at home with my my girlfriend and baby in our little council house or I was going out with my friends – going to football, having a laugh.

Apart from a couple of exceptions, the church was achingly middle class. The people didn’t dress like me, they didn’t talk like me, they didn’t socialize like me. The jobs they did and how they spent their money was so different from me. Even the humour they used was different; nothing was the same.

Struggle

Natalie: Since the global financial crash of 2008, many of our churches have really stepped up in terms of social action projects that reach out to people facing poverty or injustice.

In some churches, we have seen some of the people who come to our projects also come to faith in Jesus. But often we then struggle to help them find true belonging and community in the church.

Don’t quite fit

Specific people come to mind who have encountered Jesus, started to read the Bible excitedly and got baptised with joy, but soon found that their ways of thinking don’t quite fit with those around them, and the gap between them and their new friends is just too large – not spiritually, but in every other way.

It can feel so overwhelming that it seems insurmountable, so they often leave, feeling that Christianity isn’t for them, when in reality it might have simply been that middle-class church wasn’t a good fit.

Absent

When it comes to the working class, we are mostly absent from churches: Evangelical Alliance research found that 81 per cent of people in British evangelical churches have a university degree, compared with 27 per cent of the population as a whole.

Churches are not reaching huge sections of our communities. And they are starting to notice.

Adjusting

I ‘stuck’ because of the grace of God, obviously, but I wonder if it was also because I was able to adjust and imitate the behaviour around me. Looking back, I now see that I spent the first 20 years of my Christian life learning how to become middle class because I thought that’s what a Christian looks like.

Now I am having to disentangle class from the gospel and unlearn some of what I imitated, because though there are many great things about being middle class, there are also some things I never should have picked up.

Biased

Paul: The problem is that the existing structures are heavily biased towards middle-class values. Some of you reading this may feel offended at this point. That is not the intention of this book. We’re not trying to make the middle classes feel bad, nor are we saying that working class is better!

Rather, what is intended is for us all to understand that the dominant culture in so many churches in the UK is middle class and that middle-class values have become confused with biblical values. We’d like to challenge that. We all need to learn to appreciate the richness and diversity of life expressed by each class.

Ultimately, the church should not be ‘us’ or ‘them’ – we want to break down the barriers between the powerful and the powerless. 

Brothers in Christ

Natalie: One of the most moving demonstrations of the gospel’s effectiveness to break down invisible divides I have seen is when a convicted burglar who had been in and out of prison was baptized at the same time as one of the police officers who had previously arrested him. Both had recently encountered Jesus and become Christians.

Before, they had been ‘enemies’; now they were brothers in Christ, cheering each other on as they were, one after the other, fully immersed in the baptism pool. This is what should happen time and time again in church life – ‘us’ and ‘them’ side by side, worshipping together, breaking bread together, sharing our lives with each other.


Natalie Williams grew up in a working class family in Hastings. She worked as a journalist and is now Chief Executive of Jubilee+ and oversees the social action at King’s Church, Hastings.

Paul Brown lives in Bermondsey and has been Minister at City Hope Church since 1994, having previously worked in the building industry. He is a Trade Union member and secretary of his local boxing club.

Buy: Invisible Divides: Class, Culture & Barriers to Belonging by Natalie Williams & Paul Brown (SPCK, 2022)

5 thoughts on “Is church just for the middle class?”

  1. This sounds like a much-needed contribution! Thanks for highlighting it. I am constantly harping on about “lay training” in our area, which basically starts with the assumption that everyone wants a university degree (or needs one in order to minister), and operates accordingly with theology books and massive technical academic essays. I’m not against academia, but I’m working with one or two others here to develop a much more mentor-based form of training, accessible to (and appropriate for) our context.

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    1. Thanks John. I think voices such as yours are really interesting in this discussion as you minister in such a relevant area. There are loads of comments on facebook when I posted this link and I think the C of E does in particular come in for some sharp critique. Do you think the C of E has more of an issue with this than other denominations?

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  2. I was sent the book before it was published and gave this commendation for it:

    “The marginalising and ‘othering’ of people who are different is now often seen in relation to issues of race, gender and sexuality. The intense focus on these issues has obscured the issue of how class continues to separate and alienate people from each other.

    Invisible Divides shines a light into the culture gap that alienates many working class people from their local church. Using personal experiences, Paul Brown and Natalie Williams show how they negotiated these issues in their journeys to Christian leadership. They remind us that the radical gospel of Jesus is not some spiritualised version of middle-class values.

    They challenge Christians to be more self-aware of their assumptions, deepen their understanding and create a church which authentically reaches and inspires people from working class backgrounds.”

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    1. Thanks for this Jon, I have been saying for a while that this is the hidden, unspoken about issue for the church. It is so vital as there as so many people we are failing.
      I am excited to read this book.

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      1. Thanks for reading and commenting Lis – yes, its a key subject. I think for the C of E in particular there are some significant challenges and its interesting that both the authors come from ‘new’ churches.

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