Replacing racism with social class division

Restoring At-Risk CommunitiesThe following extracts are from Spencer Perkins and Chris Rice, ‘Reconciliation: Loving God and Loving People,’ Restoring At-Risk Communities, ed. John Perkins (Baker, 1995), pp. 107-138. I reproduce them in order to explore some implications for the church’s response to social class in the United Kingdom.

Spencer Perkins (who is black) and Chris Rice (who is white) write about their experience of racial reconciliation in Voice of Calvary Fellowship in Jackson, Mississippi, USA.

The biblical call to reconciliation is constantly contending with competing ideologies. Three fierce competitors vie for hearts and minds in our communities and hinder our attempts at creating models of racial reconciliation.

Homogenous church models – with two extreme being White homogeneity and Black Afrocentric – promote same race congregations as a comfortable, fast-growth strategy. They preach a gospel that saves but is too weak to reconcile.

A close cousin is the multicultural model, which is winning the day with minorities who fear they will have to give up their culture to join the integrated group. This model is driving minority churches and Christian on college campuses to separate along the same lines as the rest of society – in the interest of cultural self-preservation. They fear that racial harmony means assimilate and become White. Let’s all respect each other, they say – but from a distance.

The integrated church model featuring Whites with a sprinkling of minorities, embodies the most popular concept of race relations. But integration has been a one-way street that in the final analysis costs Whites very little … An integrated church is not necessarily a reconciled church.

The reconciliation model requires a decisive paradigm shift – one evidenced by friendship of trust, common mission, and mutual submission that go beyond Sunday morning. (pp. 109-110)

We can’t just spiritually snap our fingers and presto! We’re one in Christ! Spencer and I view the task of making a theology of reconciliation a practical reality in our lives and ministries as comprising three steps.

First, we have to admit that racial separation exists, that our relationships are uneasy, and they misrepresent what God intended for his people. Second, we must submit. We must hand ourselves over to God by falling on our faces before him and asking for help, recognizing that we can’t be healed apart from him. We must also submit to one another by building loving relationships across racial barriers. Finally, we have to commit. Deep and lasting reconciliation will be realized only as we commit our lives, our ministries, and our churches to an intentional lifestyle of loving our racially diverse neighbours as ourselves. (p. 113)

When I arrived I 1981, I fancied myself as the solution to racism and poverty. Growing up as a missionary kid in South Korea was my cross-cultural badge of honour. I had been discipled and educated at the best in church, parachurch, and academia, so I thought I had the skills and resources that poor people really needed …

But in 1983, in a series of heated exchanges that came to be known as the ‘reconciliation meetings,’ Blacks charged me and other Whites in our church with the dreaded R word – racism.

The topic of one meeting was why so many ambitious Whites had come to Voice of Calvary and moved into leadership positions. The Blacks argued that VOC’s goal was not to develop Whites, but Blacks. Whites could go anywhere and find no doors closed. They needed to step aside so Blacks could step forward.

After the meeting that night, as I walked alone the few blocks to my house, my insides churned … As confused as I was by their anger, I could no longer claim that race wasn’t my problem. This was personal – they didn’t trust me and I didn’t trust them. I realised that in spite of all my good intentions, I didn’t really know or trust these Black brothers and sisters …

Somehow, by God’s grace, I and other whites and Blacks hung on to each other in spite of our exposed weaknesses … Through these friendships, God slowly knit a safe place of acceptance where I could assess my racial baggage more objectively. (pp. 114-115)

Hardly ever do Christians discuss their true feelings about race – the issues are explosive: mistrust between the races; Whites’ tendency to dominate the leadership of an interracial group; unresolved residue from growing up in an unequal society …

Passive racism is a way of looking at the world that is much like wearing racial blinkers [1] – not bothering to see and understand the effects of race because we don’t have to in order to survive …

Probably the most glaring example of White blinkers is the fact that as the majority culture, we don’t have to deal with race. We say, ‘I don’t see colour,’ but the reality is we don’t have to see colour … Another subtle result of White blinkers is that we tend to have lower expectations for Black people than we have for ourselves … (pp. 115, 117)

By moving to the inner city, I had fancied myself as the solution to racism … My life was all mapped out: I would offer my skills to the inner city for a while and then get on with my ‘real’ life …

[One group of volunteers] said ‘they came to do ministry, not learn about racial reconciliation … They had come to do something for the poor. But they weren’t willing to listen and learn from the very people they considered themselves serving, only to tell and do … If you are only willing to serve as far as your private agenda extends, the message is: ‘I’m better than you, because you need me but I don’t need you.’ (pp. 119-120)

I believe we hung on to each together because we knew it was what God required of us. It is for this reason that Chris and I grow weary of attempts to promote racial understanding and healing outside the context of the church. Reconciliation is a profoundly spiritual concept – one that tackles some of our worst human tendencies with some of the best that God has to offer his people …

We can’t change the past. You can’t change that you weren’t exposed to other races where you grew up – that you were raised in an all-White suburb with churches where everybody looked like you. You can’t rub away what adults taught and demonstrated to you as a child.

But you can decide to forge a different path for the future. You might have been raised isolated from people different from you, but your children don’t have to be. There are life choices we can make in our attempt to pursue reconciliation that will put us at God’s disposal as his personal agents for racial healing. (pp. 123-4, 127)

These extracts illustrate what racial reconciliation means in practice. But I want to do something else with them that will perhaps bring them closer to home.

One church leader commented to me recently: ‘social class is British evangelicalism’s equivalent of racism in American evangelicalism’. Stein Ringen says: ‘What is peculiar to Britain is not the reality of the class system and its continuing existence, but class psychology: the preoccupation with class, the belief in class, and the symbols of class in manners, dress and language.’[2] The United States is also an unequal society, and power and wealth mutually reinforce one another. But in Britain social standing is more complex – a combination of wealth, power education and reinforced by monarchy, pageantry and the honours system. And it matters more. The British social system is elitist compared to that of other countries. The upper classes have an inherent confidence in social situations. The lower classes have an inherent inferiority.

The failure to renew our social outlook (Romans 12:2) creates mistrust between the classes. Individuals are seen as being (or not being) ‘one of us’. I hope this is mostly subconscious. It means the leadership in conservative evangelicalism largely runs along lines of social class. Those from lower social class who achieve position of prominence do so by adopting the culture of the upper class as jokes about the flannels and blazer ‘uniform’ of conservative evangelicals reveal. Many of the divisions within evangelicalism are as much about social class as theological differences. Historically this was case in the split between ‘church’ and ‘chapel’. But it persists today: in one direction people are seen as vulgar; in the other direction people are seen as snobbish.

This class consciousness runs deep in British evangelicalism. Why does this matter? It matters because we are failing to reach the British working class with the gospel. Evangelicalism has become a largely middle class, professional phenomenon. When we invite people to our dinners and our guest services, we invite our friends, our relatives and our rich neighbours. We do not invite the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame. What is at stake is the grace of God.

I was talking with a prominent evangelical church leader and asked him why more people did not adopt a household model of church. The church leader was candid in his reply: ‘Because people like me come from professional backgrounds and we want churches that reflect our backgrounds. I don’t want to be opening my home to people. I don’t want to get involved in people’s lives. I don’t want needy people in my church. Before people like me went into Christian ministry we were lawyers, doctors, businessmen. And when we get involved in ministry we bring those values with us. We want to lead growing churches with professional people, church administrators, healthy budgets. We want church to be a well run organisation with polished presentations.’

Dave had spent two years as what is known as a ‘lay assistant’ and was considering what to do next. He wanted to go into full-time ministry. He has a good grasp of the gospel and is an able communicator. He comes from a working class background and had worked as labourer before becoming a lay assistant. He was trying to decide whether to go straight into church planting or complete a theological degree. As he took advice from various people, one prominent evangelical leader told him that he needed a degree so that in future ministry he could relate to doctors, lawyers and other professionals. Whatever the merits of academic qualifications in preparing for ministry, consider the underlying assumptions behind this advice. While a degree might enable Dave to relate to professionals, it would undoubtedly make him less able to relate to working class people and the marginalized. But the assumption is that ‘successful’ churches are churches with professionals.

Let me re-read the extract replacing the idea of racial prejudice and reconciliation with social class prejudice and reconciliation.

The biblical call to reconciliation is constantly contending with competing ideologies. Three fierce competitors vie for hearts and minds in our communities and hinder our attempts at creating models of reconciliation between different social classes.

Homogenous church models – with two extremes being middle-class only churches and working-class only churches – produce congregations of one social class because they offer a comfortable, fast-growth strategy. They preach a gospel that saves but is too weak to reconcile.

A close cousin is the multicultural model, which is winning the day with minorities who fear they will have to give up their culture to join the integrated group. This model is driving minority churches and Christians on college campuses to separate along the same lines as the rest of society – in the interest of cultural self-preservation. They fear that social class harmony means assimilate and become middle-class. Let’s all respect each other, they say – but from a distance.

The integrated church model featuring middle-class Christians with a sprinkling of minorities, embodies the most popular concept of social relations. But integration has been a one-way street that in the final analysis costs middle-class Christians very little … An integrated church is not necessarily a reconciled church.

The reconciliation model requires a decisive paradigm shift – one evidenced by friendship of trust, common mission, and mutual submission that go beyond Sunday morning. (pp. 109-110)

We can’t just spiritually snap our fingers and presto! We’re one in Christ! Spencer and I view the task of making a theology of reconciliation a practical reality in our lives and ministries as comprising three steps.

First, we have to admit that division along class lines exists, that our relationships are uneasy, and they misrepresent what God intended for his people. Second, we must submit. We must hand ourselves over to God by falling on our faces before him and asking for help, recognizing that we can’t be healed apart from him. We must also submit to one another by building loving relationships across barriers of social class. Finally, we have to commit. Deep and lasting reconciliation will be realized only as we commit our lives, our ministries, and our churches to an intentional lifestyle of loving our socially diverse neighbours as ourselves. (p. 113)

When I arrived I 1981, I fancied myself as the solution to poverty. Growing up as a missionary kid in South Korea was my cross-cultural badge of honour. I had been discipled and educated at the best in church, parachurch, and academia, so I thought I had the skills and resources that poor people really needed …

But in 1983, in a series of heated exchanges that came to be known as the ‘reconciliation meetings,’ working-class people charged me and other middle-class people in our church with the dreaded P word – prejudice.

The topic of one meeting was why so many ambitious middle-class people had moved into leadership positions. The working-class people argued that the goal was not to develop middle-class people, but the marginalised. Middle-class people could go anywhere and find no doors closed. They needed to step aside so the marginalised could step forward.

After the meeting that night, as I walked alone the few blocks to my house, my insides churned … As confused as I was by their anger, I could no longer claim that social class wasn’t my problem. This was personal – they didn’t trust me and I didn’t trust them. I realised that in spite of all my good intentions, I didn’t really know or trust these working-class brothers and sisters …

Somehow, by God’s grace, we hung on to each other in spite of our exposed weaknesses … Through these friendships, God slowly knit a safe place of acceptance where I could assess my social prejudice more objectively. (pp. 114-115)

Hardly ever do Christians discuss their true feelings about social class – the issues are explosive: mistrust between different groups; the tendency of middle-class people to dominate the leadership of a groups; unresolved residue from growing up in an unequal society …

Passive prejudice is a way of looking at the world that is much like wearing blinkers – not bothering to see and understand the effects of social division because we don’t have to in order to survive …

Probably the most glaring example of middle-class blinkers is the fact that as the majority culture, we don’t have to deal with social division. We say, ‘I don’t see class differences,’ but the reality is we don’t have to see class differences … Another subtle result of middle-class blinkers is that we tend to have lower expectations for working-class people than we have for ourselves … (pp. 115, 117)

By moving to the inner city, I had fancied myself as the solution to social division … My life was all mapped out: I would offer my skills to the inner city for a while and then get on with my ‘real’ life …

[One group of volunteers] said ‘they came to do ministry, not learn about reconciliation … They had come to do something for the poor. But they weren’t willing to listen and learn from the very people they considered themselves serving, only to tell and do … If you are only willing to serve as far as your private agenda extends, the message is: ‘I’m better than you, because you need me but I don’t need you.’ (pp. 119-120)

I believe we hung on to each together because we knew it was what God required of us. It is for this reason that Chris and I grow weary of attempts to promote social understanding and healing outside the context of the church. Reconciliation is a profoundly spiritual concept – one that tackles some of our worst human tendencies with some of the best that God has to offer his people …

We can’t change the past. You can’t change that you weren’t exposed to other social classes where you grew up – that you were raised in a middle-class suburb with churches where everybody looked like you. You can’t rub away what adults taught and demonstrated to you as a child.

But you can decide to forge a different path for the future. You might have been raised isolated from people different from you, but your children don’t have to be. There are life choices we can make in our attempt to pursue reconciliation that will put us at God’s disposal as his personal agents for social healing. (pp. 123-4, 127)


[1] Spencer and Rice use the US term ‘blinders’.

[2] Cited in David Cannadine, Class in Britain (Yale, 1998), pp. 20 and ix.

2 thoughts on “Replacing racism with social class division

  1. Tim,

    Very interesting – there are not many people in conservative evangelical circles, who would write such things.

    This year I have attempted to read as much as I could around the history of conservative evangelicalism in the 20th century in the UK. I contend that when we saw a growth in our numbers in the second half of the 20th century, through the leadership of Lloyd Jones, Stott, Packer etc, this was a movement centred on the upper / uppper middle / middle classes, missing anyone else.(Interestingly it also bypassed the mass Carribean immigration which occurred at the same time (which of course contained thousands of Christians and church goers), and none of these leaders have anything said about it in their biographies). This class based movement is despite Lloyd Jones appearing to have had a church of mixed classes, when he was in Wales. But when he came to London, he freely admitted his (our) failure to reach outside the middle classes (see Murray’s biography). So from this time when our leaders hit on ‘a winning formula’ (class based replication and evangelism), relatively few serious attempts have been made over the last fifty years to reach out beyond this, aside from by overseas missionaries.

    This has also enabled our leaders not to have to ‘rock the boat’ too much – which of course opens us up to the legitemate criticism, that we hold to ‘status quo’ theology, from theologians like James Cone and Cornel West.

    I know they do excellent work, but I also wonder if the dominance of UCCF in home missions, has also been counter productive to building diverse churches and leaderships. Churches are far more comfortable with a thriving student work and all the things that can bring (often through transfer growth), than the enacting a ‘paradigm shift’ to reach outside their class and ethnicity.

    The one set of organisations who have focussed outside of the middle classes has been the city missions. Whilst again good work has been done, their parachurch nature and lack of consistant relations with local churches (London City Mission has it’s own mission halls) has to have hampered their work, as opposed to UCCF who always seem to work very closely with local churches.

    The ‘proof in the pudding’ is the leaders / church members UCCF produce in conservative evangelicalism verses that of the city missions. No contest ! Is this due just to maintenance of class dominance or also indicative of problems with the theology / structure of the city missions ?

    The contrast is of course the previous manifestations of conservative evangelicalism – Whitfield in the 1700s …. can you imagine one of our current leaders preaching to the miners (is this unfair ?) and of course Spurgeon in the 1800s, who sought to reach all of society.

    Critique is easy, but what are we to do, particuarly if in one’s church context speaking like this makes one feel like a combination of Tony Benn and Malcolm X ?

    Colin Thomas

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