Foundations: No.75 Autumn 2018

Assumptions Without Reflection:
Assessing Cultural Values in Light of Biblical Values

It is commonplace for majority culture values to pass into local church culture without much biblical or critical assessment. The equation of cultural values with biblical norms can have the knock-on effect of limiting minority culture representation, both at leadership level and within the church at large. With a particular focus on the question of class, this paper will explore some indicative examples, provide biblical analysis of these cultural value judgments and offer some suggestions as to how we might overcome our cultural biases to increase representation of minority cultures within the church.

Basing the cultural values on a summary of Ruby Payne’s characteristics of generational poverty by Tim Chester, this paper will consider the issues of speech, time, dress and social interaction from working- and middle-class perspectives. It will consider how these things play out in the local church context and how they can affect the way in which the majority culture views minorities, particularly in respect to their suitability for leadership roles.

I. Historical Context

In a recent article for Foundations, Jon Putt made the following frank admission:

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. 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.[1]

Jon is absolutely right in his assessment. The 2015 Talking Jesus research commissioned by the Evangelical Alliance, Church of England and HOPE found that 81% of practising Christians hold a university degree or higher.[2] This contrasts with the 2011 Census figures that show only 27% of people in England and Wales holds a university degree.[3] With such a disproportionate number of graduates in our congregations, it is not all that surprising that we find the prevailing culture in our churches matches the middle-class professional culture from which the overwhelming majority of our people are drawn.

Jon is wrong that this was also the case historically. Robert Wearmouth points out that, during the Great Awakening,

Methodism gained its greatest successes among the socially distressed and ostracised among the labouring masses… the higher classes were barely touched by Methodist influence, but the working men and women were profoundly affected.[4]

David Bebbington also notes that, in the mid- to late-eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, working-class skilled labourers were disproportionately attracted to Nonconformist churches. He states,

whereas artisans constituted some 23 per cent of society at large, they composed 59 per cent of Evangelical Nonconformist congregations. The Secession churches of Glasgow made a parallel appeal to the skilled men of the city.[5]

Tim Chester notes, “both unskilled labourers and the middle classes were underrepresented in Nonconformist ranks” (my emphasis added).[6] It is also notable that the 1859-60 second Evangelical Awakening in Britain, The 1904-5 Welsh Revival and the subsequent 1921 East Anglian Revival all revolved around the working classes.[7] It is somewhat surprising that Jon references these very pages to make his point when, it would appear, Bebbington is saying quite the opposite. It is these figures that prompt Tim Chester to say of the overwhelmingly middle-class makeup of the modern church, “it was not always like this”.[8]

The point here is that Evangelicalism in Britain was, historically, centred among the working classes. It has shifted throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and, instead, increasingly drawn its constituents from the middle classes who now dominate the movement such that the working classes are vastly underrepresented.

My purpose here is not to point out this state of affairs. Nor am I going to offer a breakdown of all the ways and means we have got to this point. Instead, my focus will be on one issue that perpetuates the lack of working-class representation in our churches, namely, the dominant middle-class culture of our churches; specifically, the way in which middle-class values are often assumed to be biblical without much reflection on Scripture.

II. Cultural Characteristics

In his article, Jon Putt moved us toward a theology of class and considered some of the issues that might cause a non-middle-class person to stay away from a church with a middle-class culture. In this article, I want to focus upon the cultural values of the working classes that are often rejected by the middle classes, less for biblical reasons and more due to assumed values of their own.

Mez McConnell states, when faced with people converting from a culture that is different to our own, “we must begin to disentangle what the Bible says from our personal cultural preferences”.[9] For those who convert in deprived communities, or from working-class backgrounds, what behaviours are sinful and which are merely cultural? For example, Mez argues:

Smoking is stupid, but I am not sure it is always a sin. Look at any picture of a seminary faculty from the 1940s; almost every professor will be holding a cigarette. But many middle-class people will condemn those who waste their money on cigarettes, all the while indulging a $100-a-month Starbucks habit.[10]

Tim Chester offers nine common characteristics of working class and deprived areas.[11] Ruby Payne – though writing into the North American context – outlines twenty key characteristics among those who have experienced generational poverty that resonate with the situation in the UK.[12] Tim Chester has summarised Payne’s view of key cultural features in the following table:[13]

 

Poverty

Middle Class

Wealth

Possessions

People

Things

One-of-a-kind objects, legacies, pedigrees

Money

To be used, spent

To be managed

To be conserved, invested

Personality

Is for entertainment. Sense of humour is highly valued

Is for acquisition and stability. Achievement is highly valued

Is for connections. Financial, political, social connections are highly valued

Social Emphasis

Social inclusion of people he/she likes

Emphasis is on self-governance and self-sufficiency

Emphasis is on social exclusion

Food

Key question: did you have enough? Quantity important

Key question: did you like it? Quality important

Key question: was it presented well? Presentation important

Clothing

Clothing valued for individual style and expression of personality

Clothing valued for its quality and acceptance into norm of middle class

Clothing valued for its artistic sense and expression. Designer important

Time

Present most important. Decisions made for the moment, based on feelings or survival

Future most important. Decisions made against future ramifications

Traditions and history most important. Decisions made on basis of tradition & decorum

Education

Valued and revered as abstract, but not as reality

Crucial for climbing success ladder and making money

Necessary tradition for making and maintaining connections

Destiny

Believes in fate. Cannot do much to mitigate chance

Believes in choice. Can change future by good choices now

Noblesse oblige

Language

Casual register. Language is about survival

Formal register. Language is about negotiation

Formal register. Language is about networking

Family Structure

Tends to be matriarchal

Tends to be patriarchal

Depends on who had money

Worldview

Sees world in terms of local setting

Sees world in terms of national setting

Sees world in terms of international view

Love

Love and acceptance conditional, based upon whether individual is liked

Love and acceptance conditional, and based largely on achievement

Love and acceptance conditional, & related to social standing & connections

Driving Forces

Survival, relationships, entertainment

Work, achievement

Financial, political, social connections

Humour

About people and sex

About situations

About social faux pas

 

Each of the things listed is a cultural outworking of the given issues. Given the different cultural outlooks between the classes, some of these things will inevitably carry over into our church culture when it is dominated by any one class.

1. Speech

In a recent paper delivered at the Affinity Council, I gave the following example:

A middle-class man and working-class man both a hear a sermon and think it boring. The middle-class man makes some vaguely positive comment and the working-class man wonders why he is lying. The working-class man says it was boring and the middle-class man thinks he’s rude. This is just one example of how we can talk past each other’s cultures. But when the majority culture is middle class, most people in the church – not least the middle-class elders – think the working-class man is rude, so who is going to make that guy an elder? He’s too blunt. He’s insensitive. He’s not careful how he speaks. Never mind that, biblically, he might be entirely qualified for the role; according to the dominant middle-class culture, he is deemed unfit.[14]

Likewise, Mez McConnell has argued:

In the schemes [Scottish council estates] we value straight talking; it is a sign of respect in our relationships. Middle-class people tend to place higher value on not giving offence; it’s how they communicate they care about the relationship. As a result, one side looks rude and aggressive to the other, whereas the other looks wishy-washy and superficial... many housing scheme converts are overlooked for leadership because they can appear gauche, rude and aggressive in comparison to their middle-class brothers and sisters.[15]

This is echoed by Duncan Forbes – Pastor at New Life Church, Roehampton – who comments,

In my culture it is acceptable (to a point) to talk in very black-and-white terms. My previous pastor once told me that I didn’t respect him. I was surprised because I really did. But he found the way I talked to him uncomfortable.[16]

It bears saying that the Bible does have things to say about the way we speak to one another. We are cautioned to “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt” (Col 4:6) and to “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up” (Eph 4:29). There are cautions from James about the tongue (1:19, 26; 3:1-12). That is not to mention the multitude of Proverbs on this issue (cf. Pro 15:1-4; 16:24; 17:28; 18:20f; 21:23 et al). The Lord himself was clear, “on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Mat 12:36).

The question here is whether the working-class tendency to bluntness and directness is a contravention of any of these commands. I would suggest that it is possible to be a “straight talker” without being ungracious. Likewise, we must ask whether the middle-class tendency to not offend in the things we say leads to an indirectness that amounts to dishonesty. Again, it is possible to be gentle and gracious in our speech without being dishonest. The problem comes when a dominant culture is looking at a minority and defining graciousness, corrupting talk and taming one’s tongue in the same way as the culture from which they emanate would define them.

2. Noise

One of the characteristics outlined by Ruby Payne is the reality of background noise. She notes that in working-class homes the TV is almost always on, regardless of the circumstances, and conversation is usually participatory with more than one person talking at a time.[17] Many middle-class people struggle with this tendency. For them, it is right and proper to devote our full attention (as they perceive it) to a conversation and this is manifested by removing all distractions and focusing on the person speaking. The problem comes when we look for scriptural warrant for that position. There simply isn’t anything in scripture that insists upon it. What we are left with is a cultural understanding of what amounts to respect and listening. These things may be considered rude in a middle-class culture but, in working-class culture, it is simply part of welcoming an individual into family life.

3. Time

Let us consider the difference between the working- and middle-class approaches to time. The working classes tend to keep non-diarised schedules. They live in the “now” and prefer spontaneity. It is my (personal) view that if somebody makes an appointment and then breaks it, this is a contravention of James’ and Jesus’ commands to let your “yes” be “yes” and your “no” be “no” (cf. Mat 5:37; Jam 5:12). However, there is nothing biblically mandated about scheduling appointments. Indeed, there is something quite right, as Tim Chester puts it, about your allegiance being “to the people you are with, not to the clock”.[18] By contrast, whilst there is nothing wrong with seeking to schedule meetings, there can be something quite sinful in our attitude to relationships when we merely want to “fit people in”. It can speak to our schedule being of more value than the person we are meeting. Jesus’ command, “just as I have loved you, you are to love one another” (Joh 13:34) and his comments on the value of people (cf. Mat 10:31) have real implications for allowing our diaries to dictate our time more than perhaps that of the need of the people before us.

4. Dress

One of the common examples to crop up during discussion of class difference is how people tend to dress. Consider how Jon Putt described the culturally middle-class church: “There was a preponderance of chinos, shirts and jumpers, many of them branded ‘Fat Face’ or ‘White Stuff’.”[19] Some, rightly, push back that it would be false – cringeworthy even – if a middle-aged pastor decides to dress in such a way as to make himself “relevant” but that inevitably made him inauthentic. This is legitimate point – nobody wants inauthenticity. In my church in Oldham, we have people who come in blazers and loafers and those who come in jeans and t-shirts and no one individual doing either thing is going to put an unnecessary barrier between the church and the working-class locals we are seeking to reach. The issue comes, not when one or two are like this, but when the entire congregation is dressing, speaking and behaving in ways that are utterly alien to anybody outside the four walls of the building. It is this systemic middle-class culture that I think Jon Putt was outlining at the beginning of his article.

Sometimes this desire to dress a particular way stems from a “Sunday best” tradition. That, of itself, can stem from a faulty theology of “coming into God’s presence”. “Do we not want to wear our very best when we come into God’s presence?”, the argument goes. But God is present with his people all the time. His special presence dwelling in the temple, a sign of his covenant faithfulness to his people, is now fulfilled in the hearts of all believers. It is this reality that causes Paul to say we are “a temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 3:16f; 6:19f; cf. Eph 2:22). Consistency would push us to continually be in our “Sunday best” because we are continually in the presence of God. Indeed, James positively instructs us not to judge people by the clothes that they wear (Jam 2:1-9). What is more, the man whom Jesus said was the very greatest born of a woman (Mat 11:11) was viewed as wearing very odd clothes indeed (cf. Mat 3:4). This seemed not to matter to the Lord. The point is made starkly when God’s appointed man in the OT – King David – is not immediately accepted by the prophet Samuel. The Lord speaks to Samuel and says, “the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1Sa 16:17). This surely has direct application for how we judge what people wear.

Unfortunately, many middle-class church cultures send the implicit message to those who dress, speak and behave differently – albeit not unbiblically – that this is not a place for them. Even if we do manage to attract some working-class people, the same message may inadvertently be sent by the church leadership: Only those who speak and dress the right way may lead meetings, preach or, one day, become elders in the church. It is specifically for this reason I reject the Homogenous Unit Principle of church growth and echo Putt’s case for “churches that are diverse and reflect the areas in which they exist”.[20] Our congregations and our leadership teams ought to reflect the diversity of our local area, even in the way our people dress, speak and behave.

As you can imagine, the issues of cultural difference are legion; time and space do not permit us to consider them all. However, rather than assume our cultural values are biblical, we ought to treat our assumptions with a level of suspicion. We need to continually bring the question back to what the Bible says about any given issue. Does scripture necessarily insist on the things that we simply take for granted? We must work hard to separate what we assume because it is cultural and what we believe because it is biblical. We must recognise this is all the harder when we ourselves have been raised in the church, especially so if we have always remained within one particular cultural expression of it.

III. Making Room for Cultural Diversity

To recap, the Evangelical church in the UK is overwhelmingly middle class and such people dominate the culture of our local churches. The cultural preferences and approach to church life in most of British Evangelicalism is centred around middle-class expressions of Evangelical belief. As a result of those inbuilt assumptions, cultural outsiders – specifically the working classes – feel they are entering an alien world and are either overtly or unconsciously required to assimilate or forever remain on the margins. But if the Evangelical church is overwhelmingly middle class its congregations will inevitably reflect the majority culture of the people within the camp. So how can we make room for cultural diversity when we are, by and large, a monocultural movement?

1. Admit the Problem

First, and perhaps most obviously, we have to admit there is a problem. The brute figures speak for themselves – we are largely missing the working classes in the Evangelical church. If we are serious about the estate of the lost, it bears asking why one group of people are almost invisible in our churches. This may lead us to consider serious questions such as where we have planted churches, who we are sending to theological colleges, why we have sent them and where they are likely to go once they graduate. Indeed, we might ask whether theological colleges are perpetuating this situation and whether we ought to be sending people there at all. We may need to consider questions about how we express ourselves in church. Is everything we do demanded by the biblical data or is a lot of it cultural? If the latter, is it at least possible that these things are keeping certain demographics out of our churches?

2. Multicultural Leadership

Second, we may have to be more intentional about seeking to raise up multicultural leadership teams. We will have to go back to the eldership criteria laid out in scripture and be sure that we are not expecting behaviour and attitudes from potential elders that are not required by the Lord. As Mez McConnell encourages, “Look at that diamond in the rough, that person in your congregation who seems like he or she is not even close to leadership material. Invest some time in them, and God might just surprise you.”[21] There may well be working class people within your congregation whom you have overlooked for, albeit unconscious, cultural reasons.

3. Planting in Working Class Areas

Third, we will have to be more intentional about planting and revitalising churches in working class areas. We can’t do much about the overwhelming middle-class makeup of Evangelicalism as it is; that is just what we are! But we can be more intentional about encouraging our middle-class constituents to move to areas of greatest need. We cannot magic working class communicants and leaders out of thin air. So, we will have to rely on cultural outsiders going to working class areas in a bid to reach the people and raise them up to positions of leadership. As Mez McConnell has rightly pointed out,

There is not enough in place right now to develop any significant momentum toward indigenous leadership. We will have to train these “outsiders” to identify and cultivate “insiders” who can serve as future leaders.[22]

4. Awareness of Blind Spots

Fourth, we must be aware that we all have personal biases and come with cultural blind spots and be willing to challenge them. Duncan Forbes has helpfully highlighted some of the implicit bias he has faced among Christians. He comments:

I would hear comments like, “So how do your people sit through sermons? What do you teach them? How come you know so much?” One good brother told me how his school told his class they were in the top 1% of the country, better than people like me, and now meeting me challenged his whole paradigm.[23]

Another recent example came through some advertising put out for a conference. It spoke about, “the problems of immigration, and Islam in particular”[24] going on to consider how Christians ought to grapple with this “problem”. As with most of these things, there was almost certainly no malice intended, but to those working in contexts with high proportions of immigrants and/or Muslims, these comments appeared clumsy at best. Duncan Forbes rightly noted on Twitter that, “These are the kind of things that get spotted quickly before publication if more minorities are at the planning table.”[25] We need to recognise that we all have implicit biases and cultural blind spots and the best way to mitigate them is to build diverse teams around us.

5. Listen to the Minorities

Fifth, we need to listen to the concerns of minorities in our midst without instinctively jumping to defend ourselves. In a recent blog post, Ian Williamson – pastor of New Life Church in Middlesbrough – said:

I am constantly hearing middle class people, practitioners, charity directors wanting to lead conferences and discussions on how to help the poor and the working class… If you want a discussion on how to help the working class and the poor, you need it to be led and directed by them.[26]

In other words, we need to hear what minorities are saying about our churches and listen to their concerns. One of the reasons Ian suggests the working classes are put off the church is because the culture is dominated by the middle classes who, in turn, are very quick to wave away working-class concerns. Ian calls this attitude paternalistic. It is an imposition of cultural values on those we deem less able to grasp their significance. Instead of doing that, we must learn to critique our own culture and listen to the voices of minorities amongst us and assess their concerns biblically, rather than culturally.

Conclusion

In his book, Centre Church, Tim Keller says, “we cannot avoid contextualization.”[27] We cannot simply claim to preach the Word and allow the Spirit to do his work as though such is happening entirely in a vacuum. Paul recognised this need to contextualise the gospel when he said:

To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some (1 Cor 9:20-22).

Paul had a cultural flexibility that permitted him to share the gospel with all kinds of people – planting churches among all kinds of people – whilst offering the same gospel message to all of them.

Sadly, our churches have almost accidentally fallen into the Homogenous Unit Principle. We have created church cultures that are essentially middle class and we filter the criteria for eldership through our middle-class cultural spectacles. Keller has pointed out that though we may have diverse churches, when we push into the diversity, it is clear that this tends to be ethnic but rarely class or even cultural diversity.[28] As John Stevens noted on Twitter, “higher levels of education flatten cultural difference making it easier to grow multi-ethnic graduate churches”.[29] This may lead to a great increase in ethnic diversity, but it does very little for class or cultural diversity.

We must recapture something of Paul’s cultural flexibility. We need to recognise the importance of contextualisation and realise that much of what we do is culturally, rather than biblically, informed. That is not to say our cultural values are necessarily wrong, it is simply to note that they are not, of themselves, sanctified. We must learn to be suspicious of our cultural assumptions and be willing to take a scalpel to the cultural forms that have built up around our Christian beliefs. If we are to genuinely seek after the oneness in Christ to which we called, it will mean laying aside our cultural values and seeking to bring all under the rule of Christ and the values of scripture.

 

Next article >>   Back to contents page >>