Intentionally increasing our proximity to the underdog, those who are disadvantaged or in need will call us to step out of our comfort zones - but these are steps we must take if we are to make room for a wider range of social backgrounds in our churches. By Martin Charlesworth
About ten years ago a man called Tom walked into the church which I led at the time. He had serious problems. He was heavily in debt. His marriage had failed. He lived alone and was prone to depression. Although he had a job, his life was in a mess. He came from a poor working class background and had spent much of his time in his earlier life in pubs where he had become something of a fighter. Tom did not fit the social profile of my largely middle class church. However, we were able to offer him debt advice and help him stabilise his finances. (He has now paid off all his debt). Then we introduced him to the Alpha course.
To cut a long story short he came to a living faith, joined the church and has become a firm friend. We enjoy spending time together. We share a passion for watching live league football together. Tom is also my chosen travelling companion if I am away from home preaching. We often laugh over the fact that our social backgrounds are totally different. I am classically middle class! This friendship has deeply enriched my life. Tom helps me to understand life from the point of view of the disadvantaged, the underdog and those in need.
Proximity through friendships and relationships with many different people has been an important part of my journey. All this has lifestyle implications. It may affect where we live. We may feel called to go to live in the poorer parts of our town, city or district. It may affect who we spend time with. It will affect our focus in hospitality. It will affect how we make friendships. It could even affect who lives in our homes—whether that means having people in as lodgers, fostering, adoption, or taking in survivors of slavery or refugees.
Intentionally increasing our proximity will call us to step out of our comfort zones. One of the great lessons of Jesus’ life is that he always lived in amongst people – he was not secluded in an office, a theological institute or a quiet wealthy leafy suburb.
My co-author, Natalie Williams, explores this theme further in our recent book, A Call to Act (David C Cook). She sees the issue from the opposite starting point to me – although we have come to the same conclusions about its importance!
I am a middle class leader trying to work out how to relate to those joining the church from poor backgrounds. Natalie, on the other hand, grew up on a very poor council estate in the 1970s and 1980s. Her family lived in a high rise block of flats. She remembers needing to walk down several flights of stairs to the ground floor to use the public phone. She received free school meals. Her father left the family during her childhood. No one in her family had ever been to university. Signing on for unemployment benefit was her expected first step in life after leaving school. Food was always eaten sitting in front of the TV.
Then quite suddenly she was converted to Christ, aged 15, through contact with Christians at her school. However, the cultural gap between her and the members of her church was huge. There was the embarrassing difference between her poverty and their affluence, and her difficulty understanding the middle class habit of inviting people to share meals in their homes, and the huge challenge of the social skills required in going to church meetings…. and much more.
Our new book takes a close look at this issue of ‘poverty-busting inclusivity’ as one of a number of issues we identify in the quest for modern Christian discipleship to be characterised by ‘building a poverty-busting lifestyle’. We argue that church culture will need to change in a number of ways if we are to make room for a wider range of social backgrounds in our churches. Some of this relates to racial diversity, some of it is about social class and some is about raw poverty. All of it is important.
Our book also looks at a number of other little-discussed lifestyle issues which, we think, need careful consideration if our discipleship is not to be compromised by an unthinking adoption of middle class secular values. Here are some of the other things we discuss: understanding Jesus’ call for his disciples to live lives of economic simplicity; learning how to influence whole local communities through being a radical socially engaged church; moving towards ethical consumerism; and finding ways to be really practical environmentalists in the face of the urgent social justice implications of climate change.
A Call to Act has just been published by David C Cook and is our third co-authored title. See also ‘The Myth of the Undeserving Poor’ (2014, self-published), and ‘A Church for the Poor’ (2017, David C Cook).
Martin and Natalie both work for Jubilee+, a charity focused on increasing the capacity of local churches to engage with social action. See www.jubilee-plus.org
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