‘For’ the poor or ‘of’ the poor?
A Church for the Poor, a new book from Jubilee Plus, explores the same questions as Church Action on Poverty’s ‘Church of the Poor?’ project. In this guest post, Greg Smith, Development Worker for Together Lancashire, reviews the book.
A Church for the Poor: Transforming the church to reach the poor in Britain today By Martin Charlesworth and Natalie Williams
Published by David C Cook
The ‘option for the poor’ which was the keynote slogan of Latin American liberation theology from the 1970s onwards has been around now for a long time. In our current age of austerity and since Francis became Pope, there has been a significant revival of this theme in the Catholic world. Evangelicals in Britain have also recently rediscovered the heritage of social action, and projects such as food banks, homeless shelters, work clubs and debt counselling centres have proliferated. Yet as Bishop Philip North recently pointed out, the church as a whole has failed to make a priority of marginalised communities in what were once known as council estates, and has spectacularly failed to establish thriving worshipping communities in these settings.
In many ways this story is not news; in the late 19th Century for example William Booth Salvation Army struggled to recruit from the most deprived communities and in the 1970s urban evangelicals such as David Shepherd began to catalogue and seek explanations for the gulf that existed between the church and the urban working class. However, a new generation of Christians in the 21st century now needs to grapple with these wicked issues for themselves.
If you have a group of young enthusiastic Christians, or older church members who are encountering poverty for the first time as volunteers in a local food bank, this book could be very useful for them
In this context Charlesworth and Williams’ new book, the sequel to their The Myth of the Undeserving Poor, plays a useful role. It is a short popular treatment of the issues, clearly aimed at the evangelical and charismatic market and presents a serious challenge to comfortable middle class Christians who struggle (or fail) to connect with and integrate into their congregations, people who are caught in the web of poverty. If you have a group of young enthusiastic Christians, or older church members who are encountering poverty for the first time as volunteers in a local food bank, this book could be very useful for them. It also has some useful practical advice for people charged with leadership in the local churches. It also offers a useful survey of the wide range of social and community action approaches that are currently in operation in a broad and ecumenical range of Christian churches and organisations. It also recognises the different varieties, experiences and cultures of poverty, of those in work, in rural areas, and of asylum seekers as well as those on benefits. Perhaps it could have paid more attention to issues of race, religion, disability and gender. However, it is not an advanced-level academic text and therefore has some limitations.
The authors exhibit a sincere longing to serve the poor, to welcome them into their fellowships, to treat them with sensitivity and dignity, to share the good news of Jesus and his Kingdom and to challenge people to respond and grow as disciples of Christ
Both authors clearly have their hearts in the right place and have years of practical experience in planting and growing churches. They exhibit a sincere longing to serve the poor, to welcome them into their fellowships, to treat them with sensitivity and dignity, to share the good news of Jesus and his Kingdom and to challenge people to respond and grow as disciples of Christ. They ground their theology in the practice of the New Testament church and cite numerous biblical verses. I think they could have made more of the Old Testament and it’s system of welfare provision and radical redistribution in the jubilee as well as the prophets denunciations of injustice and oppression. It is only on page 150 that they raised the question of advocacy and there they rely on James rather than Amos. Even here there is not much sign of a manifesto for radical economic and political change. However, this is an inevitable consequence of their earlier political and social analysis, which fails to recognise growing inequality and poverty as a direct consequence of free market ideology which has dominated the global economy since the 1980s. Rather they explain the current situation in Britain as the unfortunate outcome of the failure of the banking system in 2007.
There is relatively little room for the voices of marginalised people to be heard, and for the recognition that God may already be at work in their communities and that the missionaries themselves may need to heed a call to conversion
A final weakness is that the book betrays some vestiges of a messiah complex. The preposition FOR rather than OF or WITH is perhaps the key. It is still mainly about how we as affluent Christians can bring the word and the love of God to them. There is still an assumption that getting people saved is the endpoint of mission, and that subsequent to that there should be personal and social transformation. This leaves relatively little room for the voices of marginalised people to be heard, and for the recognition that God may already be at work in their communities and that the missionaries themselves may need to heed a call to conversion.
So do buy this book as a primer for your gap year mission trainee, your project volunteers or even your new curate. But please don’t rely on it if you are doing a theological or sociological dissertation or if you have already been in community work or urban ministry for twenty years. Nor would it be much use for someone who has lived on the streets, been housed on a sink estate, claimed JSA and been sanctioned for trivial reasons, or who has just scraped a living by insecure work at minimum pay. After all these are the people who are the experts on the realities of poverty in Britain today. And they often don’t choose to read books in order to understand it.
This review first appeared on Greg Smith’s ‘Primitive Ranter’ blog.
Click here to read more about our ‘Church of the Poor?’ project.