Review of Tim Chester's Unreached: Growing Churches in Working Class and Deprived Areas (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity, 2012).
This book by Tim Chester of The Crowded House in Sheffield (and now also of WEST), is an analysis of both the author’s own reading and experience and the experiences of a number of other gospel workers who are seeking to reach out to working class and deprived neighbourhoods in the UK. These workers, sharing in the Reaching the Unreached network, have been seeking to help one another in the very challenging task of church planting and nurturing in some of the most difficult estates of the UK. Chester’s book borrows heavily from the experiences of these folk and seeks to draw together significant themes and lessons to be learned.
Roy Joslin published his important book, Urban Harvest in 1982. The social character of Britain has changed hugely since then but, as Chester points out, nothing comparable has been written in the intervening years. So this book is really significant if for this reason alone. Chester seeks to lay the foundation by clarifying a Christian view of culture. Contextualization in working-class areas means that, as all cultures contain elements that are good, bad, and indifferent, so we should neither make a blanket condemnation of working-class culture nor offer a blanket affirmation. So Chester argues that gospel workers will want to affirm what is good and seek to change what is bad.
While the whole book is useful, I especially appreciated chapters 2 and 3, “The culture of working-class and deprived areas” and “Key gospel themes for working-class and deprived areas,” which are full of helpful insight and suggestions for appropriate gospel communication.
Chester recognizes the phenomenon of social lift, of people becoming Christians from deprived backgrounds and acquiring new attitudes and behaviours that lead to social mobility. “To some extent,” he says, “this reflects an aspiration by new Christians towards middle-class values, which, in turn, reflects the church culture into which they are socialized” (14). Chester is walking a tightrope here, as I think he knows, but perhaps doesn’t express. He is at pains to point out that some working-class values are good and need to be affirmed, and some middle-class values are bad and need to be changed. Considering the vast majority of the readers of this book will be middle-class he is making is a good and necessary point. But I struggle with the argument here. Chester does say that social lift reflects the aspiration to middle-class values “to some extent” (my emphasis) but doesn’t tell us to what extent it doesn’t. In a book of this size and character it is impossible to cover all the issues but I think that the social analysis of the book is at times simplistic and over-generalized. The phrases “middle-class culture” and “working-class culture” are used throughout the book in such a way that an alien might be forgiven for believing that the two cultures are the products of two completely distinct communities, like a multi-ethnic society, living side-by-side but hardly interacting, and sharing very little. It may feel like that at times but the reality is that the categories of middle-class and working-class, as Chester acknowledges (43), are not as bounded as one might think. Moreover, British society has some cohesion such that interaction between different groups is constant and inevitable.
Furthermore, the recent Great British Class Survey (http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/0/21970879) resulted in a different construction of the class system such that Britain, according to the researchers, Mike Savage from the London School of Economics and Fiona Devine from the University of Manchester, is now better described by a new model with seven classes ranging from the Elite at the top to a 'Precariat' at the bottom. Unreached was published before this so doesn’t go into the recent diffraction of the working class into a much less cohesive agglomeration than it used to be (although this is acknowledged).
Whether a two or three class system or a seven class system is best to characterize British society is not the point. They are all models of the social reality, not the reality itself. The point I am trying to make is that I am not sure that it is valid to talk in such concrete terms about middle-class values and working-class values. Since they are not distinct concrete social groups, but rather societal categories, their representatives do in fact share an awful lot—that’s what we might call British culture. While wanting to affirm, as Chester does, so much that is good and noble in the life of working-class people it is also right, I think, to acknowledge that some elements of British society, as any society, are more corrupt than others. New disciples from such backgrounds will have further to travel than others. Thankfully, much of the book covers the great needs of working class and deprived neighbourhoods and offers a feast of practical advice to those involved in gospel ministry among them. I hope a second edition would interact with the findings of the Great British Class Survey. This book should be read and prayed over by anyone seeking to reach out to those in working-class and deprived communities and should sound a challenge to a church that largely appeals to those it is like.