Working Class People and the Evangelical Conversation

There are other major, often unreached for the Gospel demographics that are maybe not as prestigious but no less spiritually important and in some cases far more numerous. A gun-owning middle aged white man in West Virginia or central Pennsylvania who’s a truck driver or living on disability is not a major part of the Evangelical conversation. A near retirement age housewife who works part-time at Wal-Mart in a small Midwestern city is typically not part of the conversation. A Millennial age high school drop-out, unwed mother is typically not part of the conversation. Working class or unemployed black people are typically not part of the conversation.

Mark Tooley

I sat on this, because I wasn’t sure it was fair—I wanted to try to think of defensive replies. But I can’t. Here’s my angle: 1) if people from every kindred, tribe, people, and nation are being called into the kingdom (an “if” that really is a “since”); and 2) if it will take narrow demographic targeting to evangelize them (an “if” I don’t grant); then 3) we ought to see young evangelical pastors training in, or at least aiming at, West Virginian contextualization. Some guys ought to affect backwoods styles the way others don skinny jeans. Some ought to bone up on the goings-on of the latest NASCAR races. Some ought to lose a few teeth, live in a trailer, wear wife-beaters and basketball shorts, and spit a lot. Some ought to adopt the cowboy hat, jeans, cowboy boots, and mien of the Mexican migrant workers I used to live near. There ought to be study centers helping gifted seminarians understand the Yoopers of Michigan and not just the Yuppies of Manhattan.

Why is it that cultural contextualization among millennial-age pastors in America seems to be focused on the elements of the culture we all find attractive? Cultural contextualization for Hudson Taylor was a sacrifice, as it was for Paul: it meant giving up liberties one enjoyed, not just taking liberties one coveted.

I’m not sure I can offer a great way forward here. My own practice is to use cultural forms for my own dress, speech, and manner that appeal widely and occupy a middle ground among “respectable” forms. I decided a long time ago to fully inhabit the suburban redhead persona I’ve been handed rather than trying too hard to contextualize culturally. Though I can use the accents of certain groups to which I’ve ministered (all the characters in books I read to my kids have their own accents), I chose not to do so. Why? Because unlike the Chinese to whom Taylor ministered, the cultures to which I ministered are fully aware of my culture and will see any adaptations I make as posing, posturing. I tried in ministry to make appropriate cultural concessions; I didn’t always start services on time as I preferred. I stayed open for interruptions. I never dropped a negative word, or had a negative thought, about the forms that respectful dress took among the low-income people who attended my ministry. But I preferred my contextualizing to occur during preaching: I preached a biblical message that targeted explanations, illustrations, and applications to them and their needs constantly.

I’ll be honest: I have really struggled to figure out why cultural and class divisions affect my crowd of Christians so deeply. And I have come up with few answers. But posing is certainly not one of them. He who marries the spirit of the age, as they say, will find himself a widower in the next. The cultural forms of hipsterdom mean something (though I think that meaning is fading steadily as hipster styles become more mainstream). Are those forms communicating what biblical preachers really want to say?

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

2 thoughts on “Working Class People and the Evangelical Conversation”

  1. Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next. ” ― William Ralph Inge (1860-1954, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/inge). Especially when “the next” is next door, the next block, or the next bedroom. it seems that media revolutions always increase the available number of Zeitgeists. Never before have so many been available.

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