Like begets like in the church

We all know like begets like. Horses beget horses, humans beget humans and God begets God. That is, indeed, why the eternal Son – who is himself very God – is begotten not created. There is an obvious reason that you do not get pigs from goats and owls from cows – like begets like.

In churches and seminaries, this principle holds. It is rare for middle class churches to plant working class congregations. It is unusual for seminaries to churn out anyone who isn’t at least a bit academically inclined. As I noted yesterday, we cannot be surprised that UK Evangelicalism remains largely white and middle class when like begets like. As I commented there:

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.

I was then sent this tweet on twitter:

Even before we begin suggesting solutions to the problem, it helps to be clear exactly what we are aiming to fix.

Is it a problem that white middle class people come to know the Lord? Of course not! It is something to rejoice in. Is it that working class and BME people aren’t coming to know the Lord? No. In fact, they are typically more ready to respond to the gospel than the middle classes. Is it an issue that middle class people are in church leadership? Again, no. Is it an issue that we want our leaders to be well trained? Nope.

So what, precisely, are we trying to address? First, there is a general underrepresentation of working class and BME people in British Evangelical churches. If we use the somewhat leaden measure of a university degree to measure class (NB: obviously some working class people gain degrees and some middle class people don’t), a measure that is apparently difficult to discern, either 27, 34 or 40 per cent of the UK population hold a university degree depending on the study you use. At best, this means 60% of the UK population have not been to university and do not hold a degree. British Evangelical churches do not generally have 60% of their membership from non-degree educated backgrounds. BME members should make up 10% of the movement and, whilst churches in certain areas are never likely to have any, some areas ought to see 40-50% of their congregations made up of BME people. We fair badly on this figure.

Second, the underrepresentation of working class and BME people in our churches, in general, is replicated among our leadership. Regarding the latter, London has a few, though almost certainly not a representative figure – there is not a chance 40% of London Evangelical churches are led by BME minister nor would the wider measure of eldership help. Outside London, I fear we wouldn’t need more than our fingers to count the number of BME pastors (but would be glad to find an 11th finger is useful). I go to the North West Partnership meetings and it wouldn’t be hard for a white supremacist group to take a group photo, change the logo and use it for their own marketing. When we represent areas such as Oldham, Rochdale, Blackburn, Manchester and Liverpool something is surely awry.

Of course, a largely white middle class movement is going to produce largely white middle class progeny. The issue is that Evangelicalism is overwhelmingly white and middle class to begin with. Worse, we have created cultures within our churches that imply, if not explicitly make clear, that unless you are white and middle class you will not be considered for leadership roles nor will you be sent to theological college.

Some see no problem because they wonder how a working class person, with no qualifications, could possibly cope with formal academic theological degrees. This rather speaks to the culture we have created. 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.

The fact is, however, we have to deal with the situation as it is. For good or ill, Evangelicalism in Britain is a predominantly white middle class grouping. It’s leadership is overwhelmingly white and university educated. What are we going to do about it? Here are some suggestions.

First, where there are already churches in working class areas, let’s support them both financially and with a ready supply of workers. Second, provide in context training programmes where members of working class churches can access quality training that is recognised by the wider church as a credible basis for ongoing church leadership. Third, offering assessment criteria that does not unfairly privilege the middle class educated. Fourth, make effort to evidence the belief (which I desperately hope we all hold) that working class and BME people may be used greatly by the Lord to lead his churches. This includes giving working class and BME people opportunities to lead and preach in our services as well as making opportunities for them as officers of the church. Fifth, it means white middle class people getting off their high horses, taking their hands off their noses and putting themselves in a position whereby they are willing to move to deprived areas and plant churches amongst people who are not like them. Sixth, it means making a conscious effort to train those reached by such churches and providing genuine pathways for them into church leadership.