During the summer, our ‘Church for the Poor’ survey attracted 384 responses from churches of all denominations. In the second of three guest blogs, Geoff Knott from Word on the Streets explores some of the barriers created by class and attitudes.
As part of the survey, we asked
‘What do you feel most hinders you becoming a church for (and of) the poor?’
Themes from the free text responses were analysed. A text response could contain more than one theme. The number of mentions of a theme were counted, giving an idea of the most common thoughts. These are the themes that emerged in order of mentions:
- Lack of resources.
- Middle-class barriers.
- No direct contact.
- Busy doing what we do.
- Lack of vision, no leadership.
- Not knowing enough about poor.
- Understanding theology re poor.
Lack of resources has come out as the number one hindrance in both this survey and the National Surveys on social action.
Contributing to this are: the old adage that 80% of the work is being done by 20% of the people; the time poverty of people today, with busy work and family lives; and the age profile of the congregation. However, it is not only people but money for the initiatives, the resources it takes to keep buildings and practices going, and the money that needs to be remitted to denominations.
Some questions need to be asked (not least):
- Are people from the congregation being equipped and released or does the load fall on church leadership?
- Are leaders from the congregation being intentionally developed?
- Are there possibilities to involve volunteers from the local community?
- What teaching and envisioning is being given regarding Christian service?
- How is a church working with other churches?
- What are the priorities for activities (not just social ones)?
- Should some existing activities be stopped?
- Are denominational leaders empowering local leaders to make changes?
- Do denominational leaders know the demands they are putting on local leaders to keep the ‘system’ and current structures going?
The next hindrance is one I’d like to focus on for the purposes of this blog. The hindrance of a ‘middle-class’ church is seen as very real. It is ‘an elephant in the room’ which needs to be exposed and talked about. Good people are doing good things but there is evidence of barriers to the poor.
Some of the comments from the survey illustrate the issues better than I can:
- “Middle-class white Christianity – based on intellectual activities – bible reading, preaching etc. We get the bible concept of remembering the poor – but expect them to fit our idea of what church should be like – rather than taking a radical, and biblical approach to discipleship!”
- “I think many of our congregation, who are all good people, are actually frightened of those who are poor. Because the poor generally look and speak differently and often behave differently, our congregation is not sure how to interact with them.”
- “Entrenched attitudes among the comfortable.”
- “People have become comfortable in their own little cocoons in church and do not want it to change. They don’t want it spoiled.”
- “Social and political attitudes towards poverty that infiltrate the church fellowship.”
- “An aging comfortable social club type of church that has a long history of holding themselves above the poorer sections of society.”
- “Most of our church members are comfortably off and have little experience of poverty themselves. I think they see the poor as ‘other’, as ‘not like us’. They do not seem to see it as an integral part of their faith to give time and/or money to helping the poor.”
There needs to be a culture change and that takes leadership and time.
One leader who has taken the church on this journey found the following:
- there needs to be a heart change – loving people who are different than us
- as well as teaching, start helping people experiencing poverty – walking with them not just giving things to them
- review existing actions and be bold enough to close or refocus
- only start actions if there is a leader to lead
- review what views and attitudes are expressed in all communications
- keep working at it – it takes time and patience
The above obviously then ties in with the hindrances that follow: no direct contact; busy doing what we do; lack of vision; not knowing enough about poor and understanding theology re poor.
This also ties in with my previous blog on ‘Hidden rules among classes‘.
If you want a church that is for everyone – rich and poor alike – you need to break down every wall of separation and that includes the barriers of a middle class church.
Word on the Streets organised the ‘Church for the Poor’ survey with support form Church Action on Poverty and Jubilee Plus. The full findings will be available to download soon.