Foundations: No.74 Spring 2018

Culture, Class and Ethnicity: A Theological Exploration

Christian discussion of culture, class and ethnicity are as important as they are heated. Often they fail to properly define terms or reflect deeply within theological categories. This paper is a theological exploration of the ways in which the concepts of class, culture and ethnicity are understood in biblical terms and subsequently interrelated. It is part of an attempt to uncover and confront our own cultural blind spots and biases, and in turn value the other more highly than ourselves. 

Introduction

Joe nudged the swing doors open and looked around. He was early; the hall was only a third full. He sat near the back, unsure what to do next. Ten minutes later, with the hall almost three-quarters full, someone stood up and started speaking. Joe surveyed his fellow attendees. They were like an alien race: more women than men, singing together, largely silent and undemonstrative otherwise. After bobbing up and down, singing various celtic-rock-tinged songs (which the musicians seemed to enjoy more than the crowd), a man spoke for almost thirty minutes, occasionally drawing a chuckle for observations concerning lives with which Joe was not familiar, or issues that apparently meant much to others but not to him.

Joe grabbed a rich tea biscuit after the service, but felt like a foreigner as he watched people. There was a preponderance of chinos, shirts and jumpers, many of them branded “Fat Face” or “White Stuff”. What sort of “Crew” did these people belong to anyway? There was a preponderance of people using words like preponderance. It was all unusually quiet and no-one had popped out for a fag. Conversation circled around wine orders, independent film festivals, and sports (not football). And why was no-one talking to him?

This story is born out of experience; it is my experience, but I am not Joe. I am one of the “Fat Face” wearing, non-smoking, polite, measured, part-privately-Oxbridge-educated, professional members of a local evangelical church that Joe may have seen that day he visited church – perhaps not an alien race, but certainly a foreign class. Those that fail to recognise in my description the middle classes illustrate a useful point to which we will return below: class is not an easily-definable category. It is inherently perspectival and therefore disputable. I have been a member of various churches and visited more, and although they have been partly diverse, ethnically and socio-economically, the dominant culture has been middle class.[1] Some of those churches, despite their best efforts, did not reflect the diversity of their local contexts. If local churches are to be beacons of light to which all are attracted, this is at least regrettable.

If evangelical churches are to be more fruitful in attracting and including those from a non-middle-class background then we might start with understanding our world a little better, and perhaps develop a more theological understanding of what we call “class”. As we do so, we may also become more aware of our stubbornness, pride and prejudices that lie ensconced in the comforter of our own class complacency. This might move us to new understanding and repentance, and we may then be better placed to contextualise the manner in which we meet, our mission and our call. We might uncover attitudes and practices that place an unnecessary barrier to people from a non-middle class entering into any given local church.[2] It is a question, therefore, of culture first, evangelistic method second. The focus here will be less on how we communicate the timeless truth of the gospel (that is maybe for another paper) but the time-bound, culturally-specific ways we seek to meet together to listen to God’s Word, offer praise, encourage each other and so forth. So, let us go forth, thinking of ourselves with sober judgment, confident in the grace of God to humble us, challenge us, change us, and equip us with passion and understanding, empathy and zeal as we seek to become more fruitful churches and leaders.

It is my sincere hope not to appear, or worse, to be, patronising in this paper. As Hanley writes of sociological and popular commentators: “In many ways, what defines the state of being working class is veering between sentimentality and bitterness like a drunk trying to walk down the aisle of a moving bus.”[3] I will attempt as little veering as possible as I discuss issues relating to people from a culture I know less well than my own and certainly do not regard as either inferior or perfect.

To work towards a theological understanding of class, we will begin with the issue of culture: what it is, where it comes from and how to “read” it. This is because we are in part concerned with cultural reasons people from non-middle-class backgrounds may have for staying away from majority-middle class-churches. Having examined the issue of culture, we will then turn to the issue of class and investigate how that term is generally perceived and used; specifically, we will argue for a particular biblical understanding of “class”. Within that discussion, we will develop our understanding of how the ideas of class and culture relate, and therefore how a culture within any given church develops. At that point it will also be appropriate to sketch an outline of what the church should (and should not) look like with regard to class and culture.

1. Culture

Understanding what cultural factors of any given church may prove off-putting requires first a working understanding of culture.[4] Vanhoozer argues that culture is made up of “works and worlds of meaning”.[5] He goes on to argue,[6] that culture is therefore the dimension of social life that carries meaning and encompasses the outworking of human endeavour; each action and construction communicates something of the author’s values, concerns and self-understanding. This means that culture is powerful and dynamic – it communicates values, orientates those who consume it by giving them a framework with which to view the world, reproduces its own values and cultivates the human spirit.

Take, for example, a film like Finding Nemo. The film communicates the authors’ values, including perhaps (amongst others) the value of family life, and the importance of forgiveness and trust. These values are carried by the film to those watching it and, depending in part on the skill of the film makers, begin to influence and shape those watching the film. They then carry those values into the wider world, using them as a lens by which to interpret their worlds and interact with those around them.

For those not yet belonging to Jesus, or within his church, Wells argues that their cultural outpourings are reflections of values and beliefs that have been produced by looking for the sacred within (otherwise known as idolatry).[7] As Powlinson says: “Idols counterfeit aspects of God’s identity and character...: judge, saviour, source of blessing, sin-bearer, object of trust, author of a will which must be obeyed, and so forth. Each idol that clusters in the system makes false promises and gives false warnings.”[8]

As such, all the things that God provides in terms of transformation, intuition, connectedness and consciousness are sought by people within themselves; any aspect of non-Christian culture is a consequence of that search and the construction of norms that flow from answers found or constructed within. This search for such transcendent norms is ultimately futile and unsatisfactory:

…postmoderns… have ways of offsetting this inner corrosion. Luxury and plenty, entertainment and recreation, sex and drugs, become the ways of creating surrogate meaning or momentary distraction, or at least numbness. It is surrogate meaning and distraction to conceal the inner blackness, the depletion of self, so that its aches can be forgotten.[9]

Alternatively put, what goes on internally is expressed externally.[10] Ecclesiastes summarises this search and the resultant cultural production: “wisdom” fails to make sense of life (Ecc 1:17), nor does revelry (Ecc 2:1-2) or activity, work and wealth (Ecc 2:4-11; 4:7-12).[11]

Non-Christian culture is not as bad as it might be, however; far from it. Turnau argues that the search described above is the reaction of God’s creatures to God’s natural revelation and the insistent and repetitive claims of such revelation.[12] Human culture is therefore in constant dialogue with natural revelation as it suppresses that revelation and attempts to provide non-sacred answers to questions regarding sin, salvation and relationships. Common grace and such idolatry is intertwined, as non-Christian culture is built on God’s grace.[13] If churches are to be places that are as inclusive as possible it is important to effectively “read” the culture and underlying worldview of people in order to make sure the mode and shape church takes is accessible and relevant to people from differing backgrounds.[14] This involves asking questions that seek to identify “God’s footprints”: Where is beauty or justice found in the culture? Where is truth appropriated but twisted? Where does salvation lie and what does damnation look like?[15]

What we have said about non-Christian culture applies also to the culture of each church family. Every church has a culture constituted of the corporate values and perspectives of the members and leadership of that church.[16] There is no such thing as neutral culture,[17] nor can we know, this side of the new creation, “objective” or paradigmatic church or gospel culture. As people are converted from their idolatrous worldviews with their attendant cultures, there is a tension between the old man and the new creation (2 Cor 5:17) renewed by the Spirit (2 Cor 4:16).[18] Yet as people from each culture enter a church family, they bring with them to the church community some aspect of their culture which, in God’s common grace, has something to commend it. Equally, they bring with them aspects of their culture of which they need to repent. Every church community is therefore a mosaic of redeemed sinners with incompletely redeemed cultures, cultures that do not necessarily share the same levels of common grace or redemption in the same areas. So, for example, imagine a hypothetical church comprised largely of two cultures. In common grace, culture A put a very high premium on hospitality whereas culture B put a very high premium on generosity. Now people from both cultures have been converted and belong to the same community and both need to prize and grow in the relative strengths of the other culture.

2. Class

Having spent some time examining culture, we now turn to consider class –  what it is and how it works. “Most British thinking about class is not only obsessional, but also vague, confused, contradictory, ignorant and lacking any adequate historical perspective.”[19] Not to be intimidated, what follows is an exploration into the concept of class, combining a Christian perspective with a sociological one.

2.1. A Christian Understanding of “Class”

My contention, is that class can be treated in much the same way as ethnicity. Both are ways of speaking of the characteristics of a particular type of community or people group, and the parameters of analysis used when discussing class and ethnicity are strikingly similar.[20] This section will therefore explore some of the literature regarding a biblical theology of ethnicity, which we shall link to class as we proceed.

Ethnicity denotes a specific group, or ethnic solidarity (ESOL),[21] which may be differentiated from other ESOLs; likewise, this sort of differentiation can be something perceived by those in various class brackets. Distinct ESOLs require boundary markers (as does class) including common ancestry,[22] language/dialect,[23] spiritual forces, cultural/historical traditions, geographic area (or tradition of such an area)[24] and a common name.[25] Ethnicity is at least therefore a social perception,[26] and an ESOL may not demonstrate all these shared characteristics but will have a number of them, with common ancestry being central.[27] With regard to class, common ancestry is a more subtle factor, although it is still present; Britain has for example, its first “middle class princess”,[28] in Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, thanks in part to her ancestry.

The Bible recognises the reality of ESOLs with reference to nations/peoples,[29] without in any way undermining or denying humanity’s universality;[30] the table of nations defines ESOLs within the unity of humanity. “[They] are good and ordained by the Creator.”[31] If class can be considered part of the ESOL picture, then it, too, is part of the intentional diversity and unity of humanity.

Numerous texts suggest ethnicity is created by God (e.g. Acts 17:26),[32] and the trinitarian nature of God indicates that God enjoys diversity.[33] Ethnic diversity therefore, including class diversity, are therefore to God’s glory: “God glorifies himself in the differences themselves and is being glorified in the reconciliation of the nations through Jesus Christ, his son.”[34] God creates associations of interconnected people (Ps 22:27), and these interrelated networks of people are necessary to fulfil Gen 1:26-28, given humans are finite and social.[35] This, combined with Gen 9:1-17, makes ethnicity implicitly creational,[36] making ethno-linguistic (and class) diversity a result of blessing and the command to multiply and disperse.[37] Thus in Genesis 11, the forced dispersal of the nations after Babel is part judgment, part blessing. It is judgment of humanity’s hubris and false faith, and of their refusal to go forth and multiply. It is blessing in that it ensures they conform to God’s plan for humanity in fulfilling the creation mandate.[38]

Whilst ethnicity is created by God, Costas goes on to argue that “Man is a historical being, not an abstraction”.[39] As humanity is receptive, ESOLs develop through interaction with their environments.[40] This does not mean that ESOLs are not “real”; “on the contrary, the ethnic bond is profoundly affective: it is in this sense primordial rather than instrumental.”[41] Scripture affirms that ESOLs are created but not static, being environmentally formed and influenced.[42] This description fits well with class, something experienced as real yet subject to modification,[43] both in terms of the descriptions of class categories and by the terms with which someone may self-identify their class. For example, the Beckhams were the subject of a study charting their class transition.[44]

All ESOLs are corrupted, as mankind is. J. H. Bavinck notes that mankind, as a bearer and creator of culture, construes ESOL in a way to escape God: “Something of a protective shell [ESOL] has grown around his deepest essence, e.g., his name, position, honour, uniform, or title.”[45] Similarly, Ferdinando observes, “Ethnic identity can become the idolatrous centre of human devotion.”[46] The Bible therefore requires critical evaluation of every ESOL, looking for aspects of rebellion;[47] we can therefore say that no class is without flaw or systematic weakness.

Yet Berthoud argues that ESOLs, and therefore classes, can be redeemed and restored (cf. Gal 3:27-29): “In Christ, nations, sexes and social classes are restored to their creational goodness and thus know a healthy (a holy) unity and a healthy (a holy) diversity.”[48] He goes on to show that in Revelation, the elect, in their ESOLs, are in the new creation (Rev 21:1-2, 24, 26; 22:1-2), being healed and adopted (Rev 5:9-10; 7:9-10), and their riches and God-honouring cultural output is retrieved. Harvey Conn suggests that, “in the redemptive work of the second Adam, the task of the first Adam will be fulfilled”.[49] Conn goes on to argue that this includes mankind’s cultural output, and ethnic diversity and scattering.

In Christ, ethnicity and class are restored but members of distinct ESOLs are also caught up in a new people: “The coming of the kingdom of God relativises the sociocultural absolutes of the cultures of this world. Our heavenly citizenship causes us to sit lightly to cultural loyalties.”[50] We might term this a “meta-ESOL” – a new people group where the members carry some of their historic ethnic distinctiveness with them, allowing it to mingle with the ethnic distinctives of others. The church, therefore, is not classless but an ESOL of its own (cf. 1 Peter 2:9-10), which begins to eliminate those aspects of distinct ESOLs that belong to the “old man” and cause division.[51] The use in 1 Peter of “people words”,[52] gives the church historical roots,[53] a key component of ESOLs. Members of the church retain their original ESOL, but “through the redeeming grace of Christ, she enriches their respective cultures, gives greater depth to their talents and abilities, and restores them to fuller humanity”.[54] Christians are therefore distanced (but not removed) from aspects of their ethnicity and class,[55] as they are drawn into one people under one king.[56] Like all ESOLs, time is central to this “meta-ESOL” as salvation is cross-generational, pulling together all into one body, as Walls describes, “Christian faith, therefore, is necessarily ancestor-conscious, aware of the previous generations of faith”.[57]

2.2. Sociological Understandings of “Class”

Having explored how a Christian might understand class biblically, we now turn to explore class sociologically. Traditionally, “class” is seen as a fluid and dynamic category, often with wealth and economic capacity as the most substantial determinant.[58] This is overly simplistic, however. Cannadine argues that class should be characterised in three ways simultaneously:[59] as an integrated procession in order of social rank; as discrete classes divided by wealth and pastime (upper, middle and lower); and as an adversarial order (between patricians and plebeians, for example).

This denies a more simplistic Marxist-inspired approach to class which habitually splits class into two (workers and owners) and treats economic factors as the chief class determinants. This fails to do justice to the fine gradients within the “worker” class and the plurality of influences feeding class identity.[60]

In 1688, Gregory King, a proto-anthropologist, discerned twenty-six clear gradations in British society,[61] and recently the BBC announced that there are currently seven classes in Britain.[62] Despite the slight preeminence of the hierarchical model in Britain,[63] there still exists clear class consciousness and conflict:[64] “As soon as a person speaks, Brits tend to assign them a social class and treat them accordingly.”[65] The third, adversarial category, can be seen in Zadie Smith’s description of the difference between living in Caldwell and Hampstead: “They had a guard up the hill, in Hampstead, for them. Nothing for us [my italics].”[66] Smith is naturally not the first to perceive this sort of class divide. In 1958 Hoggart described the experience of the “have nots” as follows: “A feeling that the world outside is strange and often unhelpful, that it has most of the counters stacked on its side, that to meet it on its own terms is difficult... this [is]... the world of ‘Them’”.[67] This category can be constructed from different perspectives: for example, the virtuous few versus the rest and vice-versa.[68]

3. Culture, Class and Church

So, putting these things together, we say that all churches have a culture and, if dominated by people from the middle classes, it will be partly formed and produced by the gospel, but also partly formed of middle-class values, perspectives and interests. Many of these may be unseen and unspoken but nevertheless present, some more helpful than others.

One possible response to the reality of class identities with their respective cultural trappings is the homogenous unit principle (HUP) of church growth. The HUP is based on the following flow of argumentation: given that nations are mosaics of ESOLs, and people like to become Christians without leaving their ESOL, churches should be established within ESOLs to minimise the non-theological barriers to becoming Christian.[69]     

Regarding class therefore, this would mean deliberately establishing working-class or upper-class churches in order to make it easier for people from those backgrounds to join. I am currently unpersuaded by this ecclesiology, but rather than rebut the theory here, I will instead attempt to make the case positively for churches that are diverse and reflect the areas in which they exist. Before I do so, it is important to clarify that I am not arguing against the possibility of churches that are marked more by one class than another; this is entirely possible given that churches may exist in areas dominated by one sort of socio-economic group. It is also not an argument against various forms of contextualised evangelism (cf. 1 Cor 9:19-23). However, it is an argument against deliberately formulating local churches in such a way that it targets for inclusion people from certain backgrounds whilst deliberately making it more difficult for other people to join in.

“In the pursuit of holiness, in the proclamation of the gospel, in the service of the poor and friendless, the church of Christ builds a spiritual culture, a foretaste of the kingdom to come.”[70] Churches should seek to include diverse ESOLs in building a “meta-ESOL” where ESOLs are not lost but redeemed in serving the whole.[71] “The church must be diverse because humanity is diverse; it must be one because Christ is one.”[72] As any church meets, therefore, it should be looking to the members from different classes represented for ways they can build the church with their distinctive gifts, experiences and perspectives, as the united body of Christ.[73] Contextualised repentance must be preached, and modelled, tying conversion to the goal of unity amongst diversity. To ignore ethnic, and therefore class, unity is to misunderstand conversion, thinking it superficial, whereas conversion reaches out and affects every area of a person’s life and identity, including the assumptions and culture of their class.[74]

Church members should display unity in the quality of their common life,[75] through their friendships and service to each other regardless of class. Hughes argues, for example, in a context where there is a diversity of languages, it may be appropriate to accommodate them with different languages in one service, possibly with translation. “The bilingual church was a powerful witness to the gospel in a bilingual and multi-ethnic situation.”[76] Although difficult to realise practically, there are further examples of churches attempting to integrate contrasting cultural norms. In some cases a song is chosen in an alternative language (with translation provided), in others, one service in the month is led by the minority Chinese membership, in Chinese, again with translation. This can work on a micro- scale too, with those providing translation or sign language sitting with those who require it. Hughes goes on to say, “On one hand the church declared that people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds are one in Christ; on the other hand it also declared that it is right and proper to respect cultural and ethnic difference.”[77] The demonstration of this unity is especially seen at meal times and communion.[78]

ESOLs provide richness and variety and ignoring their distinctions risks devaluing something God has created.[79] At the same time, a church brings together, in other-person-serving community, everyone, whatever their background, under the lordship of Jesus: “[The church] is a community gathered from every tribe, tongue, and nation. It is a people called out of darkness into God’s marvellous light through the Holy Spirit, as a result of God’s revealed and redeeming grace in Jesus Christ, to be God’s own people.”[80] The church may therefore resemble its glorious eschatological reality.[81] The church benefits from the complementary creativity that diverse redeemed ESOLs provide in building a new, Christ-like, “meta-ESOL”,[82] provided the unity of humanity is never undermined.

4. Praxis

Let us conclude with some modest, possible practical applications of this discussion. There is a vast amount more to be learnt from those working in working-class communities, including many involved in the Reaching the Unreached Conferences, but here are some initial reflections:

1 – Be humble. We need to be honest about own failings, prejudices and blind spots. This is something Duncan Forbes, a pastor in Roehampton, has spoken about helpfully, including the need to more fully realise the deep and liberating truths of justification.[83] We need to confront the possibility that underlying middle-class respectability lies a moralistic pride which fails to take account of the effect the physical environment can have on people. Hanley argues that those who live on estates are the victims of “psychogeography”, living in small spaces miles from jobs, shops or bus routes and surrounded by corners of “perpetual night”,[84] Whilst Hanley’s mistake may be to excuse people of their sinful behaviour, a Christian would be mistaken in assuming they would act any differently in similar circumstances, save for God’s grace.

2 – Be engaged. We need to work harder at knowing the people in our areas more deeply so we can love them more wisely and communicate more effectively. Just with regard to class, we have seen that the British working class is not a homogenous entity but may be differentiated by geography, ancestry, accent, education, fashion, manners, leisure, housing,[85] and thus exists as a hierarchy in itself as well as a discrete grouping: “To isolate the working classes in this rough way is not to forget the great number of differences, the subtle shades, the class distinctions, within the working classes themselves.”[86]

3 – Be welcoming. We need to work at making our church gatherings less alien experience for visitors to experience. Our lead pastor at Grace Community Church in Bedford, Ray Evans, talks of the “as if” principle. In others words try and organise everything “as if” you had people present from all kinds of ethnic/class/cultural/religious backgrounds. One pastor from a working-class background that I spoke to who asked not be named explained that experiencing a Christian community as a foreign culture, with no points of contact, can reinforce the message that Christianity itself is a foreign religion, not suitable for those from other communities:

In terms of our worldview there would be a sense that middle-class people don’t understand us, they don’t know us, they have a different life to us. So whatever they’ve found that works for them won’t work for us because we would view us as having a very different life.

4 – Be relevant. Different people face different pressures. A failure from the pulpit to address topics that regularly touch the lives of people from different classes is profoundly off-putting. Brown argues that historically the church’s failure to address issues of nuclear disarmament, race and environmental issues meant that a generation grew up alienated from church – it was simply not relevant to their issues.[87]

5 – Don’t be judgmental. Here is another story a pastor told me about someone’s experience of going to church: “One brother I know was told please don’t bring your food to the potluck, to the bring and share, because it’s too pungent, it smells too strong. That’s a real incident.” Remember, most non-Christians are probably expecting to be told off when they come to church, and this is probably more true of those that are not from middle-class backgrounds, given the history of the church.[88] The church needs to be startlingly counter-cultural in a society where, “For today’s middle class, contamination is the fear that dare not speak its name.”[89]

6 – Value and promote diversity. Churches need to be active in identifying and promoting the gifts of all their members from all backgrounds for any and all church responsibilities and not they just look for the next graduate to train. What values are we searching for in potential elders? Are they the values that are really valued by and in entrepreneurial business leaders, or more fundamental aspects of character?

In writing this at the current time, just after the MLK50 and latest iteration of the Together for the Gospel conferences, a biblical appreciation of God’s design for ethnic diversity seems particularly appropriate. Let us note a number of points: Russell Moore, Ligon Duncan and David Platt[90] all spoke of the need for racial reconciliation and the implications for justice that flow from the gospel.[91] Secondly, ten years ago Thabiti Anyabwile spoke about the biblical concepts of ethnicity and race;[92] he argued strongly for a biblical foundation for ethnicity (and ethnic diversity) of which race could be a constituent, but flexible, part. This was part of the inspiration behind this paper in connecting class to the concept of ethnicity. Thirdly, it was noted that this attention on racial reconciliation missed an additional historic injustice – that of injustice between the classes.

What might we say, therefore, in reflection? In reference to point one above, one of the chief temptations for humanity is pride, to the extent that pride can almost function as a synonym for sin. And one of the most prominent manifestations of pride might be said to be the devaluing of those not like us as, it allows us to indirectly puff ourselves up. The thought process might run something like this: “This person is valuable and useful and – surprise, surprise – they bear a striking similarity to me, therefore I too must be valuable and useful.” So pride graduates to narcissism, and injustice abounds.

There are two advantages of realising that ethnicity is the parent category as Anyabwile highlights (see point two above), and as we have argued throughout this paper: it opens our eyes to all ethnic injustice (not just where race is a constituent element – see point three above),[93] and it paves the way to reconciliation and integration without over-simplifying the task in hand. (In his way, Doug Wilson reveals some of the caveats and nuances at play in the current reconciliation conversations.)[94] We can move towards more fully realising local churches that reflect God’s triune character and ontology. God is one and God is three, Father, Son and Spirit. Our churches are one, united by faith in Jesus with no distinctions (cf. Galatians 3:28), and our churches are many, consisting of individuals with different gifts, backgrounds etc. (cf. 1 Cor 12:12-31).

Conclusion

Throughout this paper we have been working on the assumption that, “All congregations, everywhere, are called to be… bridging-places, centres of reconciliation, where all the major diversities which separate human beings are overcome through the super-natural presence of the Holy Spirit.”[95] In God’s sovereignty, other people from different ESOLs refine our understanding of the gospel story and our place in it.[96]

But churches will only include the “other” if they have the right attitude. No amount of cultural awareness can make up for a deficiency in what Edwards called “internal worship”.[97] Only this sort of love, founded in love for Christ, can overcome the class insecurity with which the middle classes are plagued.[98] Freed from insecurity by their passion for Jesus, middle-class Christians can really “see people” from non-middle-class backgrounds,[99] allowing them to hear their questions, and have their practices remoulded accordingly.[100] Without the transforming power of the gospel, majority middle-class churches are likely to conclude with Massingham: “All our efforts to bring about a reconciliation between the classes are useless and a waste of time.”[101]

However, a gospel heart and vision must be combined with wisdom and an understanding of those who are different. Specifically, majority-middle class-churches need to realise, “It takes reserves of strength – reserves that many people don’t know they have until they are forced into life-or-death circumstances – to stand out, to climb over the wall in the head, which is precisely why huge groups of young people wear the same things without really knowing why.”[102]

Whilst this paper has been at pains to emphasise the centrality of Jesus and the gospel in any attempt by evangelical churches to reach non-middle-class people, it has covered more cultural and practical ground than biblical. This emphasises the need to contextualise, not just the gospel presentation, but also the culture of our churches:

Abstract, disembodied and history-less sinners do not exist; only very concrete sinners exist, whose sinful life is determined and characterised by all sorts of cultural and historical factors; by poverty, hunger, superstition, traditions, chronic illness, tribal morality, and thousands of other things. I must bring the gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ to the whole man, in his concrete existence, in his everyday environment.[103]

Or as one of the pastors I spoke to put it:

But whatever your take on it is and whatever your methodology is, there are a number of pastors that are just unwilling to contextualise at all for council estate people... And this idea of well, the Holy Spirit is going to work through it, not realising that what they’re doing is not done in a vacuum where only the Holy Spirit operates. There’s a lot of their own culture in there.

Accordingly, this is an attempt to put theological meat on cultural bones, to illuminate the task at hand with some biblical insight and demonstrate the desirability of including people from non-middle-class backgrounds, and to offer some modest suggestions by which it may be achieved. Church must be done cross-culturally as “there is no universal [gospel] presentation. We cannot avoid contextualization”,[104] so it should be done deliberately, to God’s glory and the joy of many.

 

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