Are we preaching a middle-class gospel? Natalie Williams, author of The Myth of the Undeserving Poor, challenges us to focus on helping people to be like Jesus, not to be like ourselves:
There’s a rumour going around. This rumour is that the biggest challenge I faced when I became a Christian was learning how to use cutlery. That’s not true. However, going to dinner at people’s houses was a great source of anxiety for me.
I grew up in Hastings, in a council flat in the 13th most deprived town in the country. I had free school meals, no central heating and grew up in relative poverty. As a child I was not aware of this, I don’t remember feeling stigmatised or ashamed. I first became aware of how different I was when I became a Christian at the age of 15.
Despite living in a very working-class area, most of the churches were very middle-class. I’d be invited round to people’s houses for dinner and for them to invest in me. And they served food in a way that I had never seen it be served before. They’d put meat out in one dish, vegetables in another and potatoes in another and then you’d take from each. And these lovely, well-meaning people would invite me to go first. But I didn’t know what to do. I’d say ‘no, no, after you’. I didn’t know if there was an order or how much to take… and to be honest, I still don’t.
I spent the first 20 years of my Christian life learning how to be middle-class and I’m hoping it’s not going to take me the next 20 years to unlearn it. I’m actively trying to unlearn behaviours that I thought made me a disciple of Jesus when actually all I was learning was how to be middle-class. And that’s not what God called me to.
There’s nothing wrong with being middle- class – but it’s not the goal of discipleship. We’re not supposed to conform people to our image – we’re supposed to conform people to the image of Jesus Christ. God has never seemed concerned about how I use cutlery. He’s concerned with how much I am like Jesus.
Isaiah 61 says, ‘They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.’
God’s heart for me is to be a rebuilder of ruined places and people. This verse is all about bringing people into freedom, salvation and forgiveness. The good news wasn’t that I could become wealthier and live a nice middle-class life. Jesus never actually offered me that. Yet I spent a lot of my early Christian life thinking that that’s what I was supposed to be working towards – to be like those around me. The good news is that the creator of the universe knows my name and he’s not embarrassed by me or ashamed of me. He says ‘you’re mine’. He delights in us. He sings over us. He calls us his own.
Sharing the good news with the poor is not about reaching down to people and helping them up. It’s about recognising that every single person is made in the image of God, of equal value and of worth. We don’t reach down to them, we come to serve them and get beneath them just like Jesus did. It’s a constant challenge, I see it in my own heart. Society’s view of the poor creeps in and I feel like I’m better than the people Jesus has called us to serve. I catch myself saying that I can do them good. Who do I think I am? Jesus is the saviour. I am not.
The gospel is not middle-class. When we reach out to the working class and they come to know Jesus we can often move away from a ‘come as you are’ mentality into one of behaviour modification. There’s a danger that we start to shape those who get saved to be like us instead of being like Jesus. We begin to offer people the trappings of a more comfortable life rather than offering the freedom that comes with a sacrificial life. Jesus hasn’t called us to this, he has called us to rebuild and restore that which was ruined.
Jesus doesn’t make us great by giving us upward mobility. That doesn’t require any faith. Jesus makes us great by saying ‘come, follow me and lay down your life for others’.
This is an edited version of a talk given at the Proximity Conference 2019. Save the date now for next year’s conference: 15–16 May 2020.