The problem of a white, middle-class, academically-educated church

Stephen Kneale is the pastor of Oldham Bethel Church, an FIEC church in the Greater Manchester area which is also affiliated to the North West Partnership. Last week he wrote a couple of forthright pieces on his blog which came to the attention of Affinity Director Graham Nicholls.

In the first, Stephen suggested that theological colleges are failing to serve churches in more working-class, ethnically-diverse areas because the sort of leaders they produce are not likely to be those best able to work in such places:

"The issue is that our churches reflect the middle class, educated people that run them. They, in turn, send people to colleges run by middle class educated people like them. They, likewise, churn out middle class educated people like them and set requirements that are often only met by middle class educated people like them. Working class people then enter the church and quickly learn this place is not for people like me, leadership is not for people like me and theological training is not for people like me.

Clearly, this was not Jesus’ view. He was quite happy to welcome, and commission, uneducated fishermen and those who would not meet the entrance requirements for the average theological college..."

His second piece, developed the question further by asking why, when working-class and ethnic minorities are coming to faith in Christ more readily than middle-class white people, they are so under-represented in our churches and even more so in their leadership:

"We have created a largely middle class movement that insists on academic degrees for its leaders, run by white middle class academics,  which entrenches a largely white middle class leadership that begets people exactly like themselves.

What solutions are available to us? First, we have to be clear that scripture does not demand academic qualifications for those who would be leaders in the church. We must rediscover the primary Biblical criteria for church leaders; namely, godly character. Second, we must recognise that assessing ministry ability is not always best fulfilled through academic criteria. That is, perhaps exams and writing papers is not the best way to determine whether someone is suited to ministry (irrespective of whether those things tell us something worthwhile about an individual or not). Most importantly, we need to make it clear that working class and BME people are just as appropriate for ministry as anyone else..."

Stephen goes on to suggest some ways of addressing these concerns, and in two subsequent posts has written more on the subject.

What do you think? Is this is real problem? And if so, what should we be doing about it? Your comments are invited...


Comments

When the media, politics and so many other institutions are purposefully dominated by white middle class people, why are we surprised when it happens in organised Christianity which historically has always been generally lukewarm at best, and at worst a spiritual mouthpiece for the great and good. Is the organised church of today the church talked about in the Bible? Didn't Jesus come for the broken, cast offs, poor, sick, homeless and rejected? A church filled with successful, smily, confident and certainly affluent people is seriously missing something, and if such a church simply becomes a social club for 'the better sort', it is in danger like the church at Laoedicae.

The churches within the current Baptist structure, which are likely to be doing well;are most likely to be middle to upper income churches. Not the ones suggested in Jesus manifesto Lk.4. Education for a pastor, is great as a tool, but character needs to be fitting, for a church in its natural environment.

If you read a job application for a Pastor in many circles, it reads no different from one for a manager, in the NHS or a local authority. More concerned with networking, and team management skills, than if they have ever won a soul to Christ ?. The Seminary system apes the worlds University system. So those without ‘credentials ‘ are second class. There is no room for the Biblical idea of leaders emerging from the local congregation. Why is it this way? . Because that is the world that middle class professionals live in and expect. Meetings, seminars, brainstorming sessions. The Church has simply developed its own system, where there could simply be no place for a character like an Elijah or a John the Baptist anymore.

I have work for God all my life in non demonisation churches and communities when going back to the the CoE I was shocked to find how little these people knew of God and His Kingdom but trying to stay true to my calling to serve I offered my God given gifts to be used and one seems to have to have qualification to work within this church in any leader ship way I went through prep training to see if I could study theologically then offered myself to readership training I was refused on the grounds I wasn’t evangelical enough, As this artical says I was interviewed by middle class folks and I had to fit into boxes ops I have never for into boxes all my life Bit hey God reigns and a non conformist church is wher I’m heading

We don’t need mans ideas which are the result of sense knowledge- we need to be led by the Spirit to manifest Gods ideas. Flesh and blood will never replace spiritual wisdom. For too long the church has replaced the supernatural with a social gospel which is all good but good works which are produced from the flesh remove the grace of God and the power of the cross from changing a person from the inside. Men and women will flock to a church in their thousands irrespective of there station in life when they see the supernatural manifestation of the power of God in operation

Keith Foster - Pastor Bethel Church (Coventry) - FIEC (www.bethelcoventry.org.uk) I sympathise and concur with many of the comments made. Perhaps the answer is not in central bible colleges alone (with regards training and ministry development) - but in the local church. 6 years ago, we set up a training academy here at Bethel (www.wlacademy.org.uk), primarily for our own folk but growing in reach to the wider city and local region. This has produced some 40 graduates serving in differing ways, including many from our own church, one of which is now on staff here (& planting a church in another part of the city) with another from the local estate who is (God willing) shortly to be taken on as our Community Pastor. The additional question of reaching the 'rich' is also something to ponder (the subject of my current doctoral studies - www.keithfosterdoctoralresearchblog.com) - another discussion. These are great questions to discuss.

There is much to commend our current theological education in the UK. I have been privileged to learn from many wise people with a heart for reaching out to everyone, regardless of their background. However, at London City Mission we have noticed that those from the “least reached” communities with whom we work often do struggle to access formal theological education. Partly, that is down to fewer educational qualifications, fewer role models and less access to the amount of money needed to train but I am sure there are other factors too. That’s why we started our Pioneer Programme: a 2-year, part-time training programme for younger Christians from least reached communities. We pay them to train with us while they remain embedded in their local church (theological lectures, mentoring and liberation into supervised ministry are all part of the package) – at the end of that time many more are equipped to serve in the local church (or equipped to continue in parachurch ministry – or indeed progress to other theological education). We’ve been thrilled to see ex-gang members now reaching those involved in knife crime with the good news – ex-drug dealers reaching their local estates – people will a passion for gospel-centred rap using their music to reach young people – and single mums and single dads who have come to Christ later in life liberated into various types of ministry. We need creative thinking in theological to be sure – working together, we’ll be able to initiate exciting opportunities!

In 1987/88 I complete my thesis entitled: “The Church is the disengaged preaching at the trapped.” My thesis was grounded within a period of extremely high unemployment. The context was within two widely different communities. 1) Was a prolonged placement/work within the South Yorkshire towns that had been decimated by closure of the Pits and the Miners strike of 1984/5. I chose the subject of the Church and its engagement with unemployed people – hence the title ‘The Disengaged (those disengaged from poverty within the Churches) and the Trapped (the communities of unemployed people trapped by poverty). The foundation of my study began in Leicester – looking at the historical engagement or lack thereof, in which I was lead to challenge the Churches false assumption that it has ‘lost’ the working classes who after generations were alienated from the church. In 1985 the Church of England produced the ‘Faith in the City’ report – this report was a very important resource when choosing the theme for my two years study and final themed thesis on the Community and Youth course I undertook in 1986-88. My study and a series of related essays focused upon alienation and the lack of genuine engagement by the Church with working class communities, and unemployed people. I was fortunate in my research and study discover the excellent work of a Rev’ F.L.Donaldson, at St Marks Church, in Leicester. He was an early student of Christian Socialism, a very, very unique vicar in 1905, and beyond followed his vocation to serve Christ and the Community. Note, ‘community’ for he served the wider community and was not restricted or focused upon the congregation within the church building. For this era he was a truly unique Vicar who genuine served Christ in the wider community, he worked with the working class community. He was extremely dedicated to serving a community that was facing the increasing blight of unemployment. He worked with the unemployed people, with the community, with the developing suffragette community in Leicester. He developed. Maintained and sustained a community that facing the destructive power of capitalism prior to the First World War. Alongside unemployed people, Amos Sherriff, George White, and 400 Unemployed men he sustained, encouraged and enabled the men to undertake the Leicester Unemployment March in June 1905 – who marched to London, and back, to present the King and the Archbishop of Canterbury with the Plight of the communities of Leicester. He marched with the men – he defended the men against an hostile Press, and the indifference of the State and the Church whose representatives refused to accept a delegation of the men when they reached London. The Rev F.L. Donaldson would write to defend the men who had been called vagrants and unemployed vagabonds. Donaldson’s steadfast loyalty to the men and the community of Leicester would impact his later prospect within the Church – who regarded him has the ‘Red Vicar’, akin to his friend G.A. Studdert-Kennedy (‘Woodbine Willie), whom he invited to speak at the ‘new’ Leicester Cathedral in 1926. The foundation of these historical facts, alongside the hostile governmental response to Faith in the City report 1985 gave me a critical insight into the difference between the Church and the Church institution, between the discipleship and vocation of a sincere remnant and the chasm of the representatives of the state church – the response to Faith in the City revealed the unspoken schism that remains in a church of England – between the disengaged middle class norms and values that far too many believe to be Christianity, when in fact it represents the very real distance/chasm between the disengaged (professional careerists) within the clergy/Bishops and the Trapped those with a (true vocation to serve) a calling reflected within the Faith in the City Report. Chapter 12, and a series of recommendations within the F.I.C. report represented a quite remarkable and profound insight into the potential paths set before the Church of the late 1980’s and beyond. Unfortunately, and quite deliberately the F.I.C. Report was purposely sidelined and a genuine opportunity to bridge the gap between the disengaged and the trapped was deliberately buried. It could have reformed the Church of England; it could have been a true Awakening for the Church of England and its service to the working class community, and the wider church. Profoundly sad, made even sadder by the churches descent into a generational period of ‘naval gazing’ an abandonment of ‘Faith in the City’ and Servanthood to urban communities. A tragedy. My work with the Sheffield Diocese, my work in the community of Mexborough following the insights of the F.I.C. Report positive reinforced my understanding that the Church never lost the Working Class, it never had them in the first place. It much preferred the role of ‘Helper’ for it reinforced the power relationship. And thus the ‘Helper’ remained the helper, and the ‘helped’ remained the helped. Until the helped rejected this disengaged patronage. What the Rev F.L.Donaldson and recognised was the need to the Church to work with not also ways reinforcing the power relationship. We need creative thinking in theological to be sure – one that recognises the ‘Centrality of Things’ and the need to be working together, Adrian Wait.

Acts 4: 1-31, Peter and John were perceived to be unlearned and ignorant, but filled with the Holy Spirit, they were able teach a large crowd - proclaiming the Good News. One does not require a degree to believe and share the gospel of Jesus Christ, but a strong faith and wisdom.

Churches need to return to what they were originally. Organised Christianity has simply become a vast often impersonal spiritual corporation, with little if any room for Jesus, let alone the lost, the dispossessed and poor.

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