Who’s out of step with whom?

The Evangelical Alliance recently published the results of a survey Faith in politics?[1] which is part of their 21st Century Evangelicals research project. This is a valuable survey comparing the views of UK evangelicals[2] with other statistics for the national population. One of the key questions asked in the survey was, ‘What is the single most important issue facing the UK today?’ The responses are illuminating:

Response Evangelicals Rest of UK population
poverty/inequality 32 4
Economy 17 14
Race/Immigration 6 21
Unemployment 2 11

Now I know that statistics are a special category of falsehood, nevertheless these responses do raise some important questions.

An evangelical is eight times as likely to think that poverty/inequality is the most important issue facing the UK today as a member of the general public. Eight times is a lot. It is a simple matter of reading the Bible to learn that God thinks poverty and inequality are issues of major importance. Time and again the prophets condemn the people on account of their treatment of the poor and their injustice towards others, repeating the words of the Lord to the people of Israel Amos cries out,

10 They hate him who reproves in the gate,

and they abhor him who speaks the truth.

11 Therefore because you trample on the poor

and you exact taxes of grain from him,

you have built houses of hewn stone,

but you shall not dwell in them;

you have planted pleasant vineyards,

but you shall not drink their wine.

12 For I know how many are your transgressions

and how great are your sins—

you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,

and turn aside the needy in the gate. (Amos 5:10-12)

Just one example which could be multiplied many times. And so it is right that evangelicals care for the poor and take up the fight against poverty and injustice. It is helpful that David Bebbington[3] identified activism as one of his four evangelical distinctives, an active social care for those in need and victims of injustice. But only 4% of the general population share our concern about matters of poverty and injustice. In recent years there has been a growth in defining mission in terms of social care, this is good and is to be commended. We do engage in God’s mission when we support food banks, when we run Christians Against Poverty groups. This is mission towards those who are victims of poverty and injustice. But it will not positively influence those who do not see poverty and injustice as major issues. Such mission activities will be well received as a display of God’s love and grace by those in need, but not by others. Therefore, if all we are doing in mission is acts of kindness and care for the poor we are leaving a large part of our community untouched. What will God’s mission look like for those who are not victims of poverty and injustice?

We might have expected fewer evangelicals to be concerned about race and immigration, although under the heading of race we should surely be concerned about the ghettoization of too many in our communities on the grounds of race and culture. The racism which the new fourth party in UK politics has been allowed to introduce into political debate is shameful and a cause of real concern.

If we had thought about it we might also have expected fewer evangelicals to be concerned about issues of unemployment, but the figures are stark, only 2% compared with 11% of the population. It cannot be that there are no unemployed people in our parishes or communities, but perhaps there are no unemployed people, or very few, in our congregations. If we don’t think unemployment is a major issue no wonder unemployed people find our congregations to be unwelcoming communities. If we don’t know unemployed people then our sermons will not address the real life challenges of unemployment, and so church will seem irrelevant. Why is it that so many evangelical congregations seek to plant churches in areas of cities with low unemployment? What should the mission of God look like for someone struggling with unemployment?

This election is an important time in the life of our nation. But it throws up real challenges for the evangelical community. There is no one political party with whom we can wholly identify, there are good and bad policies in them all. We cannot think that every issue is the major issue. But if we find ourselves out of step with the general population we need to take note of this. Our church life, our evangelism will naturally reflect our principal concerns. But if we do not share the same concerns as those we seek to evangelise we have another barrier to cross. And if from a list of 15 possible major issue we find evangelicals put unemployment in the bottom four we might find ourselves not only out of step with our neighbours but also out of step with God who created humans for the dignity of labour and the rewards of work, Gen. 2.15 and others.

[1] You can find a copy of this at http://www.eauk.org/church/resources/snapshot/faith-in-politics.cfm accessed on Tue 7 April 2015.

[2] 2362 people took part in this survey of which 2020 (88%) identified themselves as evangelical Christians.

[3] see D W Bebbington Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A history from the 1730s to the 1980s (Unwin Hyman, 1989)