Poverty and the emerging church…

So- are ’emerging churches’ and the people that use the label middle class and self absorbed with their own little slice of post modern spirituality?

Check out this discussion thread, in which Paule Ede, who lives and works in a tough part of Glasgow as part of an ‘Urban Expression‘ church plant. I think the discussion rapidly got a little heated, which is a shame as it seemed to be digging into something that is very important. I have a lot of respect for the things that Paul was saying, and for the challenge it ought to bring to those of us whose lives are led in a different direction.

Poverty is not romantic. It is rarely a choice, and always brings the aspiration of escape. It brutalises and robs people of health and opportunity. But the presence of such inequality in our world is as much as anything, our shame. It’s presence in our streets and cities is a sign of our failure.


A consistent theme on this blog has been that of social justice. I have lived my life convinced that the call of Jesus is perhaps first and foremost towards the poor, broken and hungry. It pushed me towards a certain understanding of spirituality, and into a career in social work, and mental health work in particular.

But we can be creatures of contradiction and self congratulation in the face of contrary evidence. I live in a big house in a beautiful place. I have a fairly new car, and a well paid public sector job. Like most men I have a weakness for gadgets. I have accumulated lots of STUFF- most of which I do not really need. In short, I live a life like most of the other people in our affluent suburbs.

I discussed this with friends in my small ’emerging’ community the other day, and my thinking changed a little.
My own group is in Dunoon. Dunoon is a fairly affluent area, although has a significant underclass of folk who ended up here, almost washed up ‘doon the watter’ from the big city. We too have lots of difficulties- drugs, under age drinking. We also are a culture that has more than it’s fair share of loneliness, isolation and brokenness.

Last week we watched a Mike Frost DVD as part of a study we are doing around the book ‘Exiles’. Frost was thundering eloquently and movingly about the nature of our calling as Christians to get into ‘Dangerous criticism’ of the empire we are part of (Subordinate and secondary perhaps to our call to BLESS the empire where we can.) He spoke a lot about consumer driven over consumption, and the poor. Following on from the discussions on this blog, I began to shrink a little into the chair I sat in, in my big house, well heated and full of my friends.

But during the discussion that followed I looked around the room with tears in my eyes. Three of us have had serious mental health problems, two addictions, several have long term chronic illnesses, others carry other wounds. Some are on benefits, others are in work. Some will have a posh holiday this year, others will go camping when they can. But we have found a place of friendship and acceptance from which we are seeking means to bless others- particularly the poor.

Then there is the work and activity we do that is a direct result of the faith within us and the call of Jesus. I started to make a list of things that we are connected with-

One of us volunteers on the committee of a local addictions charity.

One runs the ‘time bank’
One supports volunteering opportunities and helps small community groups
One manages a charity that helps homeless young people
Two others work as life coaches and run stuff for young people
Another does suicide awareness training
Another is a counselor and has a particular interest in bereavement issues
Another is seeking to get allotments established to allow folk to grown their own food
Another has set a local charity to refurbish play equipment on the west bay
Another works in Greenock to help kids get some meaningful work experience
Another is a volunteer at a local old folks home
Another is a student who is studying addictions
Another is a reporter in the local paper, campaigning around justice issues

Does this get us ‘off the hook’ then?

Well, no.

I think the call of Jesus on our lives is always destabilising, always calling us out of comfort into the journey with him. As soon as we think we have it sorted- no matter how challenging the context, then we are destined to fall flat on our faces, or descend into mundanity. This is challenge for those of us in the emerging church as much as it is for any other church grouping.

And one of the ways that people who have lots of stuff are always going to be challenged is in relation to our comfort and wealth. We are challenged not because these things are bad, but because they can so easily be idolatrous and ensnaring.

So for those of us with big houses and cars- what use are we putting them to? How dependent are we on stuff in the chase for happiness and fulfillment- whether or not we have it, or just WANT it?

These are not easy questions, but Jesus knew that- remember the rich young ruler who Jesus ‘looked at with love’.

The emerging church, in it’s theologising and pontificating is indeed a middle class phenomenon. Perhaps it’s true test will be how it lives out the call of Jesus towards the poor.

6 thoughts on “Poverty and the emerging church…

  1. Hi Chris,

    You photo could have been me 30 odd years ago.That tells us something about our city.

    Paul is a real blessing to the church in the way he brings the challenge to us to put the poor at the front of our agenda.Over the last few years it has been great to get to know him and I have been deeply challenges by him and his wife.
    I too live in a nice house and drive a new car but I do this guilt free!!My journey involves my fathers courage to step out of his working class prison and work for himself .He has led the way for me and I have now worked with him since I left school.my oldest son now works alonside us.This is important to me because its about our ability to show people by our lives the that poverty effects our heart and mind as much as our living conditions.My fathers bold step broke the rule of empire for us and I feel called to follow him .It also feels important to show what is possible if we have courage .It was never about money for him or me but it was always about our right to live free from poverty and control of the wealthy.That does not mean imfree from greed but Paul and others have helped me work that out.
    I believ as we show the kingodm to others it canset them free.But we need to walk the thin line between seeing people move on a dn prosper and encouraging them to stay where they are and give back.I still lve within 1/2 mle fromwhere I was bornand only moved tomy so called bigger house(semi bungalow) so I had more space for my family.Its what we do with what we have that I believe is important to God.

  2. HI Bill- good to hear from you!

    I think the photo could well have been me 30 odd years ago too!

    Agree too with your point about the use we put our houses/cars to.



  3. a wee response to your questions re: can we, the working class, have our church back please best over a coffee or beer ..

    ye seem to have got my blether a bit back to front, upside down.. hence my chunky reply

    i’m not saying its about – working – good v middle class – bad something completely different: -shocking even…

    most of what we call middle class IS working class..

    weve all been well and truly shafted by the powers that be … this ‘trick’ has fooled the church into breaking solidarity with creation and the working people around uk- and paralysing it in the process.. causing it to create a false consciousness, just to medicate the amputation- in some localities this has become even a sort of pathological narcissism- the church has become mentally ill or is stuck in childish fantasies and has failed to grow up.. and engage properly with creation/locality.

    its not about scot v english v irish – i’ts about all of us v the powers of empire that have done a job on all of us for millenia – the task of the body of christ in each locality is to restore solidarity with God each other and creation there (rabbis speak of ministry = repair the world) in each part of creation – from our arts to our oil rigs.. in order to do this in modern britain – we, the body of christ here in scotland need to recover our sense of being working class – that kids in tower blocks are us .. that we are all in this together – thats not so far fetched.. and not as difficult a jump as some might think …

    heres the background… to how we got hoodwinked..
    for corporate powers to plunder britain… strategy: split the working class:

    thatcher finished what tudors, clearances, enclosure and colonisation (privatisation) of the ‘commons’ started in these islands.

    By cleverly, systematically dividing and conquering the working class – the only movement, recently energised by indigenous Holy Spirit revivals and earlier revolutions – which was big and powerful enough to stand in her way – the powers now in global corporate guise could feast on britain in peace -until now that is..

    result 1:
    church and society – paralysed to act – solidarity lost – the remaining guts of britain (its commons) sold to highest bidder

    result 2: church develops serious false sense of consciousness – via its separation with rest of working class (now a minority: an underclass – pockets of estates, prisons and enclaves) –

    result 3
    backlash/the global meltdown – wake up call – the screams from the cross always unmasks the intent of the powers that be- many come out of their burrows – many christians too ‘come out’ from false states of consciousness and floating denominations and sectarian bubbles refind land connection with God again via roots with working class and coalitions that gather around shared action and prayer for localities and their existing spheres of involvement – but also in opposition: much of the church and sectors of society retreats into ‘ecclesial narcissism’ – comforting old colonialisms and increasingly living double lives-indulging in religious fantasies, ilicit consumption and scapegoating.

    The good news is there is a whole other game in town here in scotland:
    -hundreds of projects, meals and micro-funds, prayer and coalitions re-connecting ‘working class-working class’ in scotland – gathering in all kinds of ways around shared concerns for their sphere town estate scene locality – where old ‘middle class christian’ shame of disconnection melts away like the snow .. as they watch their dreams and prayers turn into action together.. as the ‘working class’ together – working with christ to heal and free the land.

    more than 40 alone in edinburgh started in last 4 years..
    this is the body of christ – his church.. all of it !

    • Hi Paul…

      Cheers for the reply- and perhaps we can indeed grab that beer/coffee at some time!

      (For those of you who have not seen Paul’s great post on this issue- check it out here- http://weebeautifulpict.typepad.com/my_weblog/2009/03/can-we-the-working-class-please-have-our-church-back.html)

      I like much of what you say, but do not agree with all of it. It reminds me of many debates in the 70’s and 80’s about how we might solidify the working class consciousness- how we might rise up and make bring about Praxis… how we could take on the powers that would seek to oppress and subjugate. But for me, these debates fail to engage with the realities of our current situation.

      A situation in which, like it or not, the old class distinctions have been shattered and broken down into smaller and more fluid components- despite the fact that there is still a very real (and perhaps unchanged) financial/political power base- although I do not see this as a secret plan to conspire and dominate the working classes- rather as a natural consequence of brokenness sin and greed in humanity. We are all taught from such an early age to climb the greasy pole and stay as high up it as we can at all costs… That is not to say that there are not some powerful and bad people out there, but more a use of language I think…

      A situation in which new economic realities dominate- the rise of a new imperialism from the far East, and the decay of the American Empire. A reformulation in Capitalism that reveals a glimpse of it’s dirty underwear, but may yet soon be covered in a new gown…

      A time in which people are less motivated by ideology and by the polemic, and information is king- but only in small bite sized chunks ( so thanks for the meaty response!)

      A time in which we increasingly medicate our moods and our feelings and have bought into a saccharine aspirational lifestyle ruled by acquisition, self expression, individualism and so-called freedom of speech.

      As for working class good, middle class bad- and English bad, Scottish/Irish good- I am sure you would agree that many people do get into one or both of these ways of thinking. To me, this builds barriers again. I am tired of using words like this to batter one another with.

      There seem to me to be a whole different set of words though that bring life to me- and possibly propel me in the same direction as you are proposing!
      The Kingdom of God- here right now
      The radical alternatives of love
      The beauty of small things and small people
      The letting go of power, and the way of the Cross
      Crossing boundaries when we can
      Welcoming the stranger
      Blessing what we can bless
      And resisting what is contrary to the way of Jesus
      Looking for beautiful things to shine light on
      For flavoursome things to add salt to

      But these are not easy things. I have to start from a position of humility- acknowledging my own part in a system that is skewed towards destruction and domination.

      Then stop talking, and start doing!

      Cheers again for the thoughts, and may your dreams come true my friend…


      Below I have pasted my response to Paul’s original piece-

      Hey Paul- interesting resonance with a discussion on the emerging scotland ning site- here http://emergingscotland.ning.com/forum/topics/the-post-emergent-church

      But for what it’s worth, a few questions.

      In this fluid changing world- where does working class end and middle class begin?

      Does working class end when we get educated and have a mortgage?

      Does thought and action only have value for working class folk if it originates with those people themselves? Jesus? Marx? Ghandi? Catholic liberation theologists? Outsiders who connected and shone light.

      Does emerging church have more or less difficulty engaging with issues of power and social justice?

      I needed to start again. I was done with church and it was done with me. The empire that held my soul fast was rooted in 1950’s evangelical thinking, and this too needed to be broken.

      I do not live on an estate- but I grew up on one.

      I had to start where I am- with my friends and community. But I needed a bridge to allow me to adventure towards God again, and the stuff I read (emerging church stuff) enabled me to do this- you could say that they gave me my church back.

      But lest we replace a steeple with starbucks, let us remember the estates.

      And let us remember too the widow next door, and the man caught in debt up the road, and the friend who is struggling with depression.

      The empire represented by the current G8 stuff in London should be resisted- the call of Jesus is to show another way. But we all struggle with this. We all know that as well as resisting, we also collude. As serving, we also contribute to the oppressing.



  4. How honest! I am rather distant from my own church roots as a Catholic and have always struggled with and sometimes against the faith I was born into; but this post brings back to me the possibility of faith in action where to believe is to do, rather than wrestle with abstract theological notions and dogmas.

  5. Pingback: Community and the social core… « this fragile tent

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