Ministering to the middle classes

A little while ago, a friend wrote an article entitled "My Ministry is Harder Than Yours (and Other Lies We Tell)." The author, Mez McConnell, is a pastor in Edinburgh and one of the architects of 20schemes, a ministry seeking to establish gospel churches in some of the poorest communities in Scotland. Mez has a hard line to walk - straight as a die himself, he has to deal with the fact that his conversion story appeals to the seekers of the spectacular and that many people in more outwardly comfortable circumstances perversely think that there is a certain glamour to really hard ministry and, frankly, that helps to win some attention and some funds to the cause. After all, paying other people to go where you don't and do what you won't really eases the conscience.

One of the ways that Mez deals with this tension is to mock the middle classes. He is happy to do this in general and more specifically and personally. Recently, he lampooned (I can hear him sharpening the knives just because I used that word) the outlook and attitude of those who applaud him for having such a hard life. His response?
When I listen to men battling away around Europe (and the states) in well off areas, it makes me break out in a cold sweat.

How the heck do you evangelize in an area where everybody has a decent paid job, a nice place to live and possibly a car (or two) on the drive?

How do you break through the intellectual pride of a worldview that thinks religion is beneath them and that science has all the answers?

How do you witness in an area where the average house price is over £250k? How do you talk to a guy who feels no need for Christ because he is distracted by his materialism?

How do you make it work in an area filled with nice, law abiding citizens, who don't cheat on their wives, beat their kids and spend their days stoned on the sofa watching reality TV?

Now that's hard.

That's more than hard. That, my friends, is brutal.
He went on to sing the praises of the straightforward, straight-speaking Schemer, the noble savage of the Edinburgh wilds, a square-jawed all-round good egg (come on, Mez, rise to the bait), open of heart and hearth.

Now that Mez has publicly admitted that I am harder than he is, I thought I might offer a friendly rejoinder - better, a supplement - to Mez's piece, confident that we probably see eye to eye on these things and the principles that underpin them.

I am writing not from the soft streets of Niddrie but from the rocky spiritual wastelands of middle England, from the London commuter belt, from . . . Sussex! Admittedly, I live in a 'new town' called Crawley, which has a reputation - perhaps unfairly - for being the local sinkhole (the descendants of London's dregs rehoused after the Second World War), so perhaps I get a little more credibility from those who count filth and crime as badges of honour. Indeed, Crawley is so little esteemed that one of the neighbourhoods to the east of the town, a richer part of this area, has removed the name from its signs so that it does not get dragged down to our level. That said, even though it is notoriously difficult to classify the middle classes (even the BBC says so), I don't think that there is much doubt that I try to reach many middle class people with the gospel. Many of my labours outside the church building are either in the town square, or door to door in a neighbourhood which calls itself - perhaps inappropriately - a village. Our church planting endeavours are currently centred on an undeniable village outside of Crawley that is the very picture of middle England. All this to demonstrate that I am, largely, in the environment that Mez describes as so unpromising a field for gospel labour.

And it is.

Mez's questions are good ones. He puts his finger on some of the real problems that exist. There is a carnal self-sufficiency that cushions many against the truth of the gospel. There is an educated arrogance that disdains the facts of scriptural revelation. You can encounter either a high parochialism that considers you to be and wants to keep you as a rank outsider (village life) or a sort of soulless suburbanity - the nurseries and daycare centres fill up first thing in the morning and then the place seems to lie empty until the school run (town life). Some streets seem designed to militate against community - houses with drives and garages but no paths that run from one property to the next. It is not just the homes that are detached and semi-detached, but the people themselves. Many of those to whom I speak are horrified at any suggestion that they are sinners. They love to look down their noses at the vulgar, and equate sin with a certain class of person, and certainly not their own. They are desperate to keep up appearances. They avoid admitting any need or weakness. Most speak to you through half-closed doors. Many have tasted religion, and found it empty or even bitter. They will put you off with polite fictions: they don't have time right now, or something similar. You say, politely, that you will try to come back another time. "That would be lovely," they say. Then you turn up again, and that's when they start getting offended - after all, you weren't mean to go back, it was all just a social game, surely? People fill their schedules with all the clutter of a comfortable life, so that they have a ready excuse not to chat, and a raft of excuses as to why they cannot give any time or effort to hearing more of the gospel. If you do get an opening, they might have a free window (delightful phrase!) in about three months time. Many homes are fenced, guarded and alarmed, and so are the hearts.

Truth be told, working in this environment only stokes the fires of my antipathy to the idea of a state church because so many of its teachings and practices at ground level militate against real and robust religion: witness the gentleman who informed me that he had been born as a Christian into a Christian home, baptised as a Christian, attended and served in a Christian church all his life, and certainly did not need someone like me telling him that he needed to be saved. I asked him how he faced the fact that the Bible tells him that he must be born again. "The Bible," he spat, "says no such thing," as he slammed the door in my face. I am not suggesting that this is true of all Anglicanism, but it is representative of the kind of Anglicanism and other ingrained religiosities, including Dissenting ones, that I face day after day. Mez says that people in the schemes are hostile to the church as an institution, a posh person's club: I have to contend with that and with the people who walk away because a simple nonconformist service is simply not churchy enough - they want more smells and bells.

But I would like to take you, for just a few moments, beneath the veneer, for that is all it is. And this is where I take issue with one of Mez's questions: "How do you make it work in an area filled with nice, law abiding citizens, who don't cheat on their wives, beat their kids and spend their days stoned on the sofa watching reality TV?" You don't, because that's not the real world of middle England (or middle America, or anywhere else). (For the record, I know Mez knows this, and I know he's having a cheerful little dig at this point, but it is precisely this that I want to address.)

Stroll with me, briefly, down some of the streets I know. I would like to introduce you, anonymously, to some of the people I meet.

You see, behind those manicured lawns and mock-Tudor frontages, behind those nice townhouse exteriors, behind those saccharine portraits of domestic bliss, are hearts full of sin. The people I go to are not nice, law-abiding citizens. Some of the tensions and feuds between neighbours are scarcely believable, fought out with icy silences and letters to local authorities rather than with bottles and bats, though the tensions often break out in angry, vicious speech that would make a docker blush. There are women and men and children with bruised bodies and battered spirits, the victims of family members. There is the abuse that leaves bodies more or less intact, and souls crushed and lives trampled. These men do cheat on their wives, they cheat on them with their PAs and their secretaries and their colleagues, and with Mrs Smith across the street.

They will cheat and steal with the best of them, but these are crimes to be winked at. They substantially disregard the law when it cuts across their comfort or their schedule. There is a double standard that reigns in many, in which others are to be considered despicable, while they excuse precisely the same spirit in themselves. They will lie through their teeth, often very politely. There is widespread drunkenness. Some of the most outwardly and ostentatiously religious are loathed by neighbours for their cruelty and callousness. As far as the people around them are concerned, that is the Christian religion, it is synonymous with hypocrisy, and they have learned the hard way to have nothing whatsoever to do with it. Worldly religion feels like the bane of the evangelist's life - it gives people every excuse they look for to spurn the truth. There are in-crowds who defend their social territory like Rottweilers. There is every world religion imaginable, in purer or more bastardized form, all manner of false gods and foolish notions. You might also be surprised at the prevalence of witchcraft and Wicca and occult practices - and not mere game-playing - in middle England.

But there is more. You learn to identify the homes where that beautiful sports vehicle on the drive is clearly a status symbol, purchased and maintained at the expense of any real home life in the expensive but crumbling property behind it. Perhaps sadder still is the decaying house and the rusting car, often indicative of the man or woman who has over-reached, and has no time to do anything but earn the wage that keeps them clinging to that rotting rung of the social ladder.

There is the man on the pleasant suburban street who opens the door, pale, sweaty and shaking, underdressed, looking like he has the mother of all hangovers or is craving his next fix, or both. There is the man who politely tells you that he has been involved in spiritualism for years, is a fully fledged medium, and he is happy to talk for a while, but you should be warned that it might not always be him who is speaking. There is the frightening number of people who are dabbling, more or less, in all manner of paganism and utter godlessness, creating "my own religion" out of a horrible and damnable hodgepodge of alternative spiritualities, a sort of pick'n'mix approach to the soul. There are those who have an aggressive disbelief - they do not want to know. There is the flagrant homosexual, who wants to flaunt his or her lifestyle choice as deliberately as possible. There are men who have a string of women coming and going, and women with the equivalent. Some of those nice homes are actually, literally, brothels. I can walk you down a street where there live, behind what seems like a delightful facade, a dying churchwarden who has no time for anything from outside his religious traditions, an angry and aggressive atheist who hates humankind and especially Christian humankind, a man who exists in utter disorder and thoroughgoing squalor, surviving - barely - on the benefits that run out sometime in the middle of every week, and a pleasant older couple, the wife disabled, the husband who dresses as a woman for their mutual entertainment most evenings. I can take you to the parks where the kids - from those nice, middle-class homes - mope about with a joint during the day, largely abandoned by parents; many of those same kids roam the streets at night, offering themselves body and soul to one another, seeking some kind of companionship where the family has utterly failed. There are porn addicts and sexual abusers and drug peddlers; there are desperate, highly-strung, cut-crystal families trying to keep it all together and to keep up with the Joneses. There are dear old ladies with a blue rinse who spit venom at you because you dare to call them sinners. There are pillars of society who warn you that they will call the police, or even threaten physical violence, unless you remove yourself before you are removed. There are the people who know it all, and who - in truth - know nothing of eternal value.

As Mez says, it is hard:
Hard is trying to build authentic community among a scattered congregation. Hard is trying to foster meaningful relationships in a diarised culture. Hard is trying to engage in spiritual conversations with disinterested individuals. Hard is not having the freedom to pop into your friends house uninvited because it might not be polite.
So, how do you evangelize? Exactly the same way as you do anywhere else: you go to the people around you, you speak to the people in front of you, you seek to communicate to them in an intelligent and intelligible way the reality of man's ruin through sin and redemption through Christ, relying on the Holy Spirit to open the eyes of the blind to the truth as it is in Jesus.

I think that Mez would agree with me that, truth be told, you cannot glamorise the gospel ministry in any place. The fact is this: up and down every country, behind every door and under every rock, in every social class, behind the make-up of the whore and the society princess, under the street uniform of the thug and the suit uniform of the banker, lurks precisely the same lifeless and sin-spewing heart. Every man and woman, boy and girl, is by nature dead in trespasses and sins. Every one of them lies beyond every power to deliver them apart from God working by his Spirit through the gospel of Christ preached to every creature. All of them need the good news. All of them have their own spiritual cladding, have concocted their own sinful and proud defences, have armoured themselves one way or another against the truth about God and about themselves. Perhaps I might borrow some words from an impeccable source to describe the universal state of things:
As it is written: "There is none righteous, no, not one; there is none who understands; there is none who seeks after God. They have all turned aside; they have together become unprofitable; there is none who does good, no, not one. Their throat is an open tomb; with their tongues they have practiced deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips; whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; destruction and misery are in their ways; and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes." Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. (Rom 3.10-19)
Those are the facts. All the world is guilty before God; all the world needs the gospel. All are in darkness, and all need the light. That is the reality, wherever you are labouring. Every preacher engaging with the lost could tell you the same. As Mez sez,
please, let's not compare our ministries on who has it toughest.

I promise not to if you don't. Let's just get behind one another in concerted prayer and support. Let's get rid of this spiritual one up-manship and face the facts that it's all a privilege anyway.
However, Mez has already conceded the high ground. It is clear who are the real tough guys. What we do, we warriors of the up-class urbs and the beatific burbs, is "more than hard . . . [it] is brutal." We don't even have the glamour of being applauded because people (apart from Mez) think it's hard. So, if you want a really hard ministry, come and visit us here in Crawley. There is always more work; there are not so many workers.