Equality has been on the agenda in the UK and around the world for a long time, far longer than I’ve been alive. For decades we’ve jostled with race, gender and age.
Over the past year, as a church leader and missionary to the urban UK, I’ve been contemplating equality in the Church. I’ve met people that say they didn’t fit into church because they were from a different culture; a different class.
I recently went to visit an 81-year-old Christian who hasn’t been to church for more than 20 years. He told me that he’s always struggled with feeling inferior when attending the average church. He put his experience down to the dress code, and the academic way that Church often educates its congregation.
I’ve also been thinking about the way that we release the church – the people of God – to do ministry. Many people from a raw, working-class background don’t get opportunities in church until they have been ‘cleaned up’, to quote a pastor I once spoke to.
Today, as I look at the church, I can easily see those that are going to get opportunities for discipleship, growth and ministry based on how polished they are. But unfortunately for the church, when we look for perfection before releasing people, we could be missing out on the ministry of some who are great gifted by the Holy Spirit.
Equal opportunities for the raw, mucky children of God goes beyond class though. A while ago we went through a really tough season in our church; I personally felt like a failure as a pastor.
Until last May I actually believed that if I was a good pastor I would be able to get the church I lead to be polished and holy – ready for ministry and mission. As sin broke out, and disunity hit our church like never before, I felt I had failed.
I remember being at a Christian conference calling out to God, asking what was happening. I kept on asking God: “How do I fix this problem of sin in the church?” Some pastors told me that ‘hungry sheep bite’; that I should teach the Bible in greater depth in our church. Some leaders told me that what I was seeing was normal on housing estates and that it was just part of working-class culture.
However, God told me to read Paul’s letters to the early church. As I did, I felt the Holy Spirit ask me if the early church was polished and sin-free.
It dawned on me as I read the New Testament letters that not only was the kingdom full of messy commoners like us, but that these unpolished Jesus-followers were given just as much opportunity to explore the grace of God, to be discipled and to make disciples, as any one of the polished religious rulers; if not more!
Jesus himself took on the young, smelly and inexperienced of his day to build the foundations of a kingdom that will last for eternity.
I heard someone say: “Judas had the best pastor that there has ever been, and he still messed up and fell away.” But the beauty of Judas’ story is that the Bible says that Jesus knew who Judas was and what he was going to do before he called Judas to follow. Yet Judas was counted among the 12 who were sent out to preach the kingdom, heal the sick and cast out demons in Luke 9.
Equality isn’t always about race, gender or age; it’s also about class and lifestyle. I’m convinced that if we released the gifts in the Church that we already see among us, if we allowed those on the edge to participate, we would see revival in our nation.
Maybe our obsession with polished, clean and holy disciples may well be the very thing that is killing off the church in the UK.
What do you think? Could we benefit from losing some of our middle-class sensibilities in the church? Have we just become obsessed with people in ministry demonstrating perfection? What needs to change?