Tim Keller and Middle Class Churches

Back in the UK Tim Keller is in town amongst other things at the National Prayer Breakfast – giving what one FC minister described as a “robust and Christ-centred defence of the gospel before Prime Minister, MPs and clergy. A great encouragement and motivation to pray for our nation”.  Brilliant!

It’s always good to listen to Tim who never fails to be challenging and stimulating.  What got me thinking was this quote from his talk – tweeted by John Stevens.

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I understand that what Tim was saying is that whilst we think we have diverse congregations, if they are only of one class then we are not as diverse as we think – and that often it is easier to transcend race than it is class – especially if education is involved.   It is a perceptive and challenging observation.

However whilst there is a great deal  of truth in this but it is by no means the whole story…I tweeted in response:

I’m not entirely sure that it is as simple as that. It’s a very middle class thing to presuppose that the middle class are more educated and that education=intelligence. It’s a disgrace if true because it is fundamentally unbiblical. Christ is the great leveller not education

Keller’s statement is probably true in many cases and is therefore a reason for the evangelical church to be throughly ashamed at being so unbiblical.

The Homogeneous Unit Principle

The problem is that the teaching from McGavran known as the Homogeneous Unit Principle (HUP) has become so prevalent in missiological circles.  This is its fruit.  Gearing churches towards one race or class may appear to be effective in outreach but in my view it is unbiblical and in the medium to short-term does more harm than good.  What are ‘graduate’ churches?  If they exist then we should be outraged.  What right do we have to effectively restrict the church to one type of people?

Trickle Down Theory

Another problem is that many churches have adopted what I term the ‘trickle down’ or at least ‘trickle out’ theory.  They believe that if you reach the people at the top of the social scale then that will have a trickle down effect – or if you reach the city centres then you will reach the suburbs.  I don’t buy into either of those theories (although the latter has more truth to it than the former).   Mission to the World (the missionary wing of the PCA)  at one point had a view that as they were largely middle class people they should try to reach middle class people in the countries that they were operating in.   It was an unbiblical and wrong policy.

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Tim being guided by Andy Longwe – FC minister in Cumbernauld!

I remember being at a meeting of evangelical church leaders in the UK where the thought struck me that they were all engaged in trying to reach the 5% not the 95%.  Their motives were fine – it is the methodology I am questioning.  I have tried many times to get well-known speakers to come to Dundee but so often you have to ask a committee and they are rarely allowed to come.  Why?  Because we are not as ‘strategic’ (under this methodology) as Cambridge or Oxford or London or Edinburgh.  That may be correct based on that methodology…but is the methodology right?

Money Talks!

In an evangelicalism with a weak ecclesiology para church ministries will inevitably go to the wealthier churches who can afford to pay more for them…that’s the nature of the beast.  The market determines.  But should the church be based on a market economy? The millionaires tithe is more valued than the widows mite.  I once spoke at a millionaires conference – designed to persuade wealthy Christians to donate to Christian mission.  Even if it was mission to the poor, was that right?

Personally I’m fed up of churches and organisations who want to come and plant churches in Scotland but who all think that they are going to plant in the centre of Edinburgh, the West end of Glasgow or St Andrews.   No one seems called to Kilmarnock or Cowdenbeath.  My rejoinder to this type of thinking is simple – Jesus came from Nazareth.  And he came first of all to the poor.

Dumbing Down

Then there is the belief that some middle class Christians have that in order to reach the working class you both need to dumb down and to have separate working class churches.  I remember having a ‘full and frank’ discussion with someone who was going to do just that and who argued that working class people would not feel comfortable in my church.  I disagreed with that then…and I disagree with it now – its patronising and unbiblical.  I would resign immediately from St Peters if I did not think working class people could come.  Which does not mean that we do not need to change and adapt as more and different people come to the Church.

Part of this is the perception (unfortunately reinforced in this tweet) that middle class people are more educated and therefore by implication more intelligent.  My father has been a farm labourer and boilerman all his days – he is as intelligent as any doctor or lawyer.  I once visited a working class communist cinema projectionist who lived in one of the poorest housing estates in Dundee.  He showed me up to his bedroom where he had 2,000 books – including the complete works of Marx, Dickens and Tolkien.  Don’t think you are going to reach him by singing ‘if I were a butterfly’ and offering him sermonettes!  Given that much education nowadays is more social engineering than thinking I would not be too quick to assume that middle class people are more intelligent or more likely to benefit from sermons that make people think.   (at another level we should be protesting at the great educational divide occurring in the Western world – why should the wealthy be able to purchase degrees and the poor be left to compete for the scraps?  Equality of opportunity in terms of education is one of the crying needs of our day).

On the other hand I recall Professor Donald Macleod of ETS going to speak at a University CU in Scotland and being asked to keep it simple because the students had had a tough week in lectures and didn’t want their minds stretched too much.  He mumbled something about just being a simple crofter from Lewis and then blew them away with an hour of intense and deep bible teaching.

None of this is to say that there are not cultural and class divides which need to be overcome.  But in the church what should overcome them is Christ – not which Uni you went to.

The Free Church

And I have seen that happen.  Its how I grew up in the Highlands of Scotland.  It’s what I saw in the Free Church at its best – where doctor, teacher, crofter, farm worker and unemployed all met and worshipped on equal terms.  We used to joke that in Easter Ross if you were English or aristocracy you went to the Episcopalians, if you were a bank manager or lawyer you went to the C of S and became an elder, if you wanted a job you went to the FP’s and if you were ordinary you went to the Free Church. It was a caricature but like most caricatures it had a grain of truth.   Overall I have found in the Free Church, with few exceptions, little of the class division that Tim Keller is speaking about.  Others may have had different experiences, I can only testify as to my own.

That is not to say that such class division does not exist in Scotland as in the rest of the UK.  I have had people who are evangelicals who have left the Church of Scotland admit that it was difficult for them to come to the Free Church, not just because of the image or the history.  Nor just because they were burned by Presbyterianism.  But because there was a certain element of culture and ‘class’ involved.  One man told me that we were too ‘Highland’ and working class – he would have no problem in coming but his friends would find it difficult.  Another well off and lovely middle class person held a ‘coming out’ party for his friends where he admitted that he was coming to the Free Church. For some it was a shocking revelation!   I also find that there is a tendency for middle class churches to be much more ‘independent’ rather than Presbyterian – because they reflect a culture in which being able to do things in your own strength is normal.  But the Christian should know that we can do nothing in our own strength.

My view is that a model of English and American evangelicalism has become influential in Scotland and because it is based largely on the HUP, in practice if not in theory, this is leading us down the same route.   We are in danger of creating churches based on class and education.  That is foolish.

Education in the Gospel

All social groups and classes need the Gospel.  All social groups and classes need to be educated in the Gospel.  Many need to unlearn some of their education and learn to unite around Christ and his word…not what Uni they went to!    This will require a degree of humility and a radical commitment to Christ and his Word.  Lets not play the worlds game or use the worlds methods.  I still believe that it is through the foolishness of preaching the cross that people are brought to faith in Christ. Rather than that being prejudiced in favour of the middle class and those who are considered to be better educated, it actually usually works the other way.

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)

 

12 thoughts on “Tim Keller and Middle Class Churches

  1. I’m pretty sure Keller would agree with the points of this article. Keller is consistently preaching about the Church’s responsibility to the poor and destitute. It’s often difficult for me to think about “class” and “ethnicity” as separate categories. The individual differences between us have a way of obscuring the truth that we are “one body” in Christ.

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  2. There are also those who think we should concentrate our evangelism on young people, but why shouldn’t we be going for their parents and grandparents too?

    Young people are, I think, sometimes thought of as an easy target for evangelising. And people tend to try to evangelise the middle class because ‘they’re just like us’, and ‘they’d be a good Christian’!

    I agree, evangelise and welcome whoever rocks up.

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    1. I agree. If we belieive that people come to know God due to His gracious choice and election (and that in the bible we see people of many differrnt ages being called by God) then I find it curious how many churches seem to think that if you are over 35 and not yet a Christian then you are not worth evangelising.

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  3. I see local churches as homogenous by default not intent if homogenous. Ours is certainly not with around 30+ ethnicities in a 150 membership. Diverse classes? Not a terminology one thinks about at all. All are welcomed.

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  4. I read this article with a heavy heart because I have seen the class divide myself all too often. While we were getting building work done on our house in Glasgow, I enjoyed the refreshing company of the builder, plasterers and electrician. These guys were about as ‘Glasgae’ (Greenock and Gourock actually) as you can get and I have lived here long enough to understand what they were saying, and them me. I enjoyed their down to earthness, plain speaking, the warmth and friendliness, their comradery and humour, their resilience to the harsh realities of life and mighty courage in the face of adversity, and their integrity shown in the standard of work and the ‘going the extra mile’ for me. They were sharply intelligent and worldly wise, but none were university graduates, maybe some didn’t even finish High School. They were sinners too, language was a bit unsavoury at times, they were in need of a Saviour, but that was my starting point too.
    I would love to have invited any of them to church and tried, in my own way, to speak a ‘word in season’ but I would not invite any of them to church because I would be afraid that nobody would speak to them if they came. We simply don’t ascribe ‘equal value’ to all people at church, the very place where the world’s values should be turned on their head.
    There is a harvest to be had amongst these people and they are many in Scotland.

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  5. It works both ways: being warned off from going to a church because it is perceived as middle class. Inverted sub-Christian snobbery.
    On the other side is, church members saying to the poor that they live in a “big house.” Even today in conversation with a friend, I was told, that someone from another church was keen to tell them that they had just sold their house for £1/2 million, without any seeming understanding of the impecuniousness of my friend. And big cars and exotic holidays. Within my lifetime in society at large, in England, it was always considered poor form to even discuss personal finances, or ask how much something cost. Now it seems to be an unbiblical measure of worth to God and how much God’s favour rest on the rich as opposed to the poor.
    And separation of age groups and worship styles.
    But the reality is that a church needs to be funded, to start up and continue and grow.

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  6. We once joined a church and then asked about joining one of the midweek home groups, only to be told that it wasn’t the right group for us as they were all families with younger children (our children were then adults)! We were aware of that fact, just not welcome to join them.

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  7. Part of the problem is the variety of churches available to choose from. My family and I spent 10 years in the middle east where if you were not RC (and even if you were) and English is your preferred language, this is your church. We had every possible background. Domestic workers making about £50 per month and professionals and business people making twice that per hour. All in the one place – 12 different denominations in a 13 person Friday morning Bible Study group. There was genuine fellowship and mutual respect.

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  8. Part of the theory about church planting in strategic cities was that opinion formers such as politicians, senior businessmen and artists live in cities, so them becoming Christians would influence the culture. Leaving aside the midfde class implications of such an approach, I also question whether it is correct in a UK context. It might be true in the US that opinion formers live in the cities, but in the UK with the exception of London, and posdibly Edinburgh, opinion formers do not live in the cities. Those less well off live in the cities whilst the opinion formers live in villages and affluent suburbs.

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