Is the church a refuge for white working class men?

John Benton has written an insightful and helpful article for the Pastor’s Academy about the need to look after men in the church. You can read it here. The stats are not at all encouraging.

John highlights that educational outcomes for men are worse than for women, a point that is not new and has been long known. What is perhaps newer, though a years old issue, is that whilst black boys used to be those at the bottom of the educational pecking order, now it is almost always white boys from deprived areas. You can see the statistics here, but the key finding in a 2019 government report stated ‘While it is important to understand and address underachievement for all pupils, educational attainment is lower for disadvantaged pupils in the White group than for disadvantaged pupils in other main ethnic groups. This is particularly striking because White people are the ethnic majority in the country, and most disadvantaged pupils are White (around 982,950 pupils in 2020, compared to 139,720 Asian students, the next largest group).’

For all the talk of smashing the patriarchy – it bears saying that is a predominantly middle class concern because working class homes are typically matriarchal – the stats tell us that it is men and boys, particularly white working class boys, who are currently being sold short. None of that is to detract from some of the very real issues women also face – there are still serious issues for them that rightly ought to be addressed – it is just to say that we’re not in the 70s or even 80s anymore, where the claim of society being stacked against women was much stronger. Nowadays, in the UK, it is working class white men and boys who exist at the sharp end of societal structures and receive the shortest shrift.

John’s article helpfully looks at the areas of education, work and family life and considers some of the statistics on the matter. But it bears saying, when John refers to ‘elite men’, in truth, I don’t think it is only elites. Middle-class men still (broadly) manage to do well. It is working class men – and especially those from deprived backgrounds, and even more so white men from deprived backgrounds – for whom all these things, and these particular statistics, really bite.

No doubt some will point to people they know and say, they did fine. I, for example, was on free school meals for most of primary school, but I did alright, went on to a red brick university and am now a clergyman. Wes Streeting – the Labour Party Shadow Secretary of Health grew up on a council estate in Stepney but went to Cambridge University and is now an elected member of parliament. But anecdotal outliers – of which we all know some – do not undercut the stats:

  •  In 2018/19, just 53% of FSM-eligible White British pupils met the expected standard of development at the end of the early years foundation stage, one of the lowest percentages for any disadvantaged ethnic group.
  • In 2019 just 17.7% of FSM-eligible White British pupils achieved grade 5 (Grade C) or above in English and maths, compared with 22.5% of all FSM-eligible pupils. This means that around 39,000 children in the group did not achieve two strong passes.
  • The proportion of White British pupils who were FSM-eligible starting higher education by the age of 19 in 2018/19 was 16%

Education in particular, but society more broadly, is clearly failing white working class boys. Only Traveller and Roma-Gypsy people fare worse and it is telling that these are two of the only groups to whom it is still socially acceptable to be racist, prejudiced and discriminatory.

The question, then, is more pressing than just whether your church is ready to help men in general. The average UK evangelical church is female-heavy. But most are reaching men. But usually middle-class men. The question is, are our churches ready to welcome and engage with working-class white men against whom much is stacked?

John’s solution to the crisis for men – particularly concerning pastors – is a legitimate and right caution. He rightly says, ‘Self-centred church leaders can see other men, especially the gifted ones in their congregation, as a threat to them. They can therefore be less than helpful towards them. Leaders can seek to subdue other men, to diminish and boss them rather than help them grow. This can lead to a breakdown of relationships and terrible consequences for a church.’ This is all true.

But there is a subtler way we can make life hard for working class white men. That is, by mimicking society. Just as society is setup by middle-class people and works to serve the interest of middle-class people and speaks to their middle-class concerns, many churches operate the same way. Our leaders are drawn from middle-class backgrounds, biblical commands are filtered through middle-class cultural lenses, certain men are overlooked for office – not because they’re unqualified – but because they don’t meet culturally dominant middle-class standards. We can essentially insist that to be a Christian – certainly to be fully accepted in the church – means becoming middle-class. I have even spoken to people who have said this in all seriousness: of course, they say, becoming a Christian will make you more middle-class! This is a similar error as the New Testament Judaizers Paul opposed in Galatians 2. If the gospel doesn’t compel Gentiles to live like Jews, there is even less reason that it would compel working class people to live like white middle class people. Insisting they do is just another form of legalism.

If anywhere at all, it is surely here that the church is called to be counter-cultural. Society may hold working class boys and men in low regard, they may be failed educationally and despised culturally, but the church can be different. Ask yourself, is your church setup in such a way that a working class man could ever make it onto your eldership? Do you provide opportunities for them to lead and preach? Do you think about how you might train them so they can lead and preach? Do you recognise that there are other culturally legitimate ways to work out the biblical commands? Is it clearly communicated – both in what you say and how you operate – that different cultural expressions are welcome? Can working class men find a home in your church?