When the church acts like Morrisons

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Of all the cities to hack off en masse, as every editor of The Sun newspaper since 1989 will tell you, Liverpool is a poor choice. The supermarket chain Morrisons – who are desperately seeking to pass the buck to Casting Networks International, who in turn are trying to shift the blame to a particular casting director utilising their service – have been implicated in an advert seeking “nothern” people specifically not from Liverpool. The Guardian report the following:

The controversial requirement featured in an advert on the Casting Networks International website, used by actors looking for work. Published last week, it asked for actors with “northern” accents for a publicity campaign fronted by “proper working-class people”.

The advert read: “These films will focus largely on people’s facial expressions. Therefore, it’s vital that their faces have character – something interesting and captivating that will make the film watchable.

But nothing glaringly obvious, and we don’t want caricatures. We want quirks: freckles, bushy eyebrows, etc. They should all be warm and likeable. They should be proper working-class people, but not at all like the characters from Benefits Street. They should not sound or look posh, and we should skew towards northern accents.

It concluded: “And nobody from Liverpool, please.”

I’m sure you can imagine the general tenor of the response on twitter. And one can understand why scousers feel a little aggrieved. Nobody likes to be told they are not welcome and few of us like to hear we are unsuitable for something when no credible reason is forthcoming. It’s particularly galling to hear that we want people just like you, but specifically not you. I can see why that would hurt and I don’t envy whatever Morrisons PR man has to handle the fallout from this particular fiasco.

The story did, however, get me thinking about when the church fares little better. Despite having lived in Greater Manchester for some while, I have never been made to feel unwelcome in a church because of my affiliation to Liverpool (1). I can, however, recall being made to feel unwelcome in churches. I suspect others have, at one time or other, found much the same.

At times, I have seen churches land on exactly the same thing as Morrisons (if, indeed, they are at fault here). If you are not the right ethnicity, or you were born in the wrong place, you are not welcome. I genuinely understand the issues that arise when a significant number of people from one particular culture, where English is a second, third or even fourth foreign language, come into British churches. My own church has a number of Iranians in attendance, many of whom have limited English, so we are well acquainted with the issues. The problems that arise can often lead to one of two solutions: (1) the in-comers are made to feel quite unwelcome by the indiginous church-goers, or (2) the in-comers immediately want to section themselves off with their own community, often seeking to plant churches based upon conformity to their own culture.

Both “solutions” seem highly problematic to me. The idea that we should allow culture to be a barrier to fellowship in the church is totally at odds with the words of scripture. Similarly, the idea that we would plant separate churches based primarily on culture seems to run so deeply against the New Testament writings it is a wonder it continues to be mooted with some frequency. Rather than seek to overcome the barriers of language and cultural difference in a unifying way, such approaches send the tacit message that you are not welcome unless you are just like me (or, at the very least, are prepared to conform to my likeness).

At the risk of severely irritating some of my Welsh brothers and sisters, this issue seems particularly perverse in many, but by no means all, Welsh-speaking churches (2). I am quite prepared to concede that in certain communities there may be some who speak no English and/or the vast majority of the community truly have Welsh as a first language. But in many places, where just about all speak English but only a select number can understand Welsh, it does seem to be an anti-gospel perversity that insists on elevating the exercise of cultural distinctives over and above the need to make the gospel understandable to all. It certainly elevates cultural distinctiveness over the importance of gospel unity itself, which surely extends as much to language where we are able as it does to submitting on issues of second, or third, tier importance.

But our welcome at other times isn’t so much about ethnicity or language but age and life-stage. I remember hearing one church repeat its vision with some regularity. They had a particular desire to see more families coming into the church. There is nothing wrong with this per se but the regularity with which it was spoken, and given this was the direction in which just about all elements of the church were aimed, the message – though, no doubt, entirely unintentional – soon sounded less like “we would love more families” and more like “if you’re not a family, we’ll tolerate you”. At times, even the tolerance seemed questionable and the message sounded worryingly like “unless you’re a family, we don’t want you at all!”

Stories like this are not isolated. They are often the product of well-meaning, sometimes really well considered, vision statements. We want more students, can quickly end up sounding like we don’t like families. We want to reach families, can often sound like singles aren’t welcome. We have a heart for Muslims can sound an awful lot like working class white Brits can do one. Certainly it’s not wrong to think about demographics and try to tailor your vision accordingly, it just requires care. What sounds wonderfully inclusive for one person may just sound highly discriminatory to another, especially if the particular point you want to drive home is repeated ad nauseam.

In many cases, the welcome you receive is not based on anything stated at all. It’s not that anybody is explicitly targeting a certain group of people but it’s clear whoever you are, you will conform to the likeness and culture of the church. Sure, I’m all for seeking to build gospel-culture that transcends any one given culture. But all too often, what we presume is a gospel-culture is filtered through the prism of our particular Western, national, regional, or even sub, culture first. I have heard folk say – with no hint or irony – that when working class people join the church they will surely become more middle class, or at least imbibe more middle class values. We may not quite say “Scousers need not apply”, but it becomes pretty clear that continued use of the word “boss” for anyone you don’t work for and a penchant for polyester sports attire will simply not be tolerated in this church.

Like Morrisons (or whoever is at fault), we can often want a sanitised version of the working classes, people from different regions of the country, foreigners or, dare I say, unbelievers. They will be made welcome so long as they conform. All too often, the conformity we look for is not conformity to Christ but conformity to our particular church culture. Otherwise, we want particular types of people whether to better reflect our immediate area or simply to make our church appear a little more demographically balanced. If you don’t fit the mould, or you’re not quite the people we’re looking for, then you’re not really for us.

If we really believed Revelation 7:9-12, we would see that cultural diversity is at the heart of God’s plan of salvation. If it includes peoples of every tribe, tongue and nation that would seem to include those of different cultures from separate nations and those of different cultures within the same nation. If we really believed in the sovereignty of God, we would perhaps worry less about the demographics of our church and rest on the fact that “salvation belongs to our God”. If salvation belongs to God, and he is bringing particular people into our church, perhaps we need to rethink our cultural assumptions and gospel vision if those people didn’t feature in our plan. If we really believe that God has called a particular people to himself, then those whom he has given us to reach – irrespective of whether they fit our cultural, ethnic, racial or demographic vision – are simply those God has given us to reach.

Let’s not fall foul of the same discrimination as Morrisons (or, for the last time, whoever is at fault). If we say that the gospel is for all, then let us behave as though we really believe that. Let’s not fall into the same cultural trap as Peter which Paul called out in Galatians 2. If Peter’s cultural baggage needed correction then ours no less needs sorting. If anything brings glory to God, “welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you” (Rom 15:7).

Notes

  1. Scouse ancestry, parentage, long-term residence, place of undergraduate study and supporter of the better of the city’s football teams
  2. I don’t suppose recourse to my Welsh heritage on my grandmother’s side will be any sort of shield here.

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