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'The Person God Made Me to Be': Navigating Working-Class and Christian Identities in English Evangelical Christianity

by Joanne McKenzie
Durham University

Sociological Research Online, 22 (1), 11
DOI: 10.5153/sro.4262

Received: 31 Jul 2016 | Accepted: 13 Feb 2017 | Published: 28 Feb 2017


This article explores the lived experience of class in relation to English evangelical Christianity. It examines how the subjective, affective impacts of class are felt, navigated and negotiated by working-class evangelical church leaders in the context of everyday ministry. Recent class analysis (Abrahams and Ingram 2013; Friedman 2016; Reay 2015) has mobilized and developed the Bourdieusian concept of 'cleft' or divided habitus (Bourdieu 2000) in empirical study of the emotional impact of movement across class fields. Examining data produced in interviews with evangelical leaders, this article draws on this work, exploring how working-class evangelical leaders experience cleft habitus as they engage with different class fields in the course of their work in ministry. It is argued that, whilst often overlooked in research on classed subjectivities, religious identity plays a critical role in provoking distinctive responses to the everyday experience of class. The accounts suggest that, in the negotiation of feelings of cleft habitus, interviewees' Christian subjectivity prompts a proactive seeking of an integrated identity that is both evangelical and working-class.

Keywords: Social Class, Bourdieu, Identity, Evangelical Christianity, Religion, Habitus


1.1 This article explores the lived experience of class in relation to English conservative evangelical[1] Christianity. Attention to individual subjectivity has been a central concern in recent class analysis and has been critical to developing understanding of how class is embodied and produced in everyday interactions (see for example Johnson and Lawler 2005; Reay 2005; Skeggs 1997). An appreciation of the ways that class intersects with aspects of subjectivity such as gender and ethnicity has often been demonstrated (see for example Bettie 2003; Skeggs 1997; Taylor 2012; Watt 2006), however, consideration of religious identity has been more limited. This article builds upon existing research through examination of the subjective, affective dimensions of class within a religious context and applies the Bourdieusian concept of 'cleft' habitus (Bourdieu 2000: 64) to church leaders' experiences of movement across different class fields in the course of their work in ministry.

1.2 I begin by outlining the ways in which recent research has paid attention to individual subjectivities in understanding class processes. I consider how the emotional aspects of class have been explored, particularly focusing on the development of Bourdieu's concept of the cleft or divided habitus in recent analyses (see Abrahams and Ingram 2013; Friedman 2016; Reay 2015). After outlining the methods used in this study, attention turns to teasing out ways in which class distinctions and a sense of cleft habitus are felt by working-class evangelical church leaders and to how these are navigated. I conclude by arguing that the accounts suggest that interviewees' Christian subjectivity prompts a proactive seeking of an authentic, integrated self that is both evangelical and working-class, a carving out of space for working-class Christians to be 'the person God made me to be'.

The emotional life of class

2.1 Within recent class scholarship, rich and nuanced ways of thinking about class have emerged, demonstrating both the continued utility of the concept of class and its salience within contemporary society (see for example Skeggs 1997; Reay 1998; Sayer 2005). The work of Pierre Bourdieu and his concepts of habitus, capitals and field (1984; 1989; 1995) have been foundational, undergirding the rich empirical work that has generated fresh theoretical approaches to the study of class. Class is conceptualized, not as static or fixed, but as relational and fluid (Lawler 2005: 797; Skeggs 2004: 3), constantly being produced in interactions in the social world through 'the positioning, judgements and relations that are entered into on a daily and personal basis' (Skeggs 2004: 173). Understanding how class is 'made' requires examination, therefore, of how class is 'lived' in everyday encounters (Skeggs 2004: 173). Lawler observes that sociological analysis has often 'revolved around the study of "large-scale" social structures'; however she questions 'can the person and the social world really be separated in this way?' (2008: 7). Class analysis that builds on the work of Bourdieu pays attention to the subjective dimensions of class, seeking to explore the dynamic at work between the structural and the personal in the production of class (Lawler 2005; Reay 2004).

2.2 Attention to emotions has been central to this exploration. Reay has argued that 'academic work on social class too often strips the affective out of accounts, sanitising the pains and the pleasures, and overlooking the psychic experience of living class in contemporary society' (2015: 21). However, recent class analysis has sought to bring this into view (see for example Reay 2015; Skeggs and Loveday 2012; Taylor 2012; McKenzie 2015), engaging seriously with 'the emotional life of class' (Reay 2005: 914) and highlighting the 'frequently overlooked anxieties, conflicts, desires, defences, ambivalences and tensions within classed identities (Reay 2005)' (Reay 2015: 10). Reay has suggested that whilst consideration of the affective is arguably neglected in Bourdieu's thinking, his reflection upon his own personal history is 'replete with emotions, mainly negative ones' with regard to his journey from a rural working-class background up the ranks of the French intellectual elite (2015: 10).

Bourdieu's cleft habitus

3.1 Central to Bourdieu's theoretical framework is the concept of habitus, 'a system of lasting, transposable dispositions which, integrating past experiences, functions at every moment as a matrix of perceptions, appreciations, and actions' (Bourdieu 1995: 82-83 emphasis in the original). For Bourdieu, the habitus finds physical expression in bodily hexis, manifest in 'a durable manner of standing, speaking, and thereby of feeling and thinking' (Bourdieu 1995: 93-94 emphasis in the original). McCloud has highlighted that whilst the concept of habitus has been critiqued as being deterministic and too static to reflect the impact of peoples' movement in social space (2012), Bourdieu stressed that '[h]abitus is not the fate that some people read into it. Being the product of history, it is an open system of dispositions that is constantly subjected to experiences, and therefore constantly affected by them in a way that either reinforces or modifies its structures' (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992: 133 emphasis in the original). Habitus therefore is shaped through engagements with varying fields in social life, yet people feel a sense of comfort and ease with those with whom they share a common habitus (Johnson and Lawler 2005) and generally inhabit similar social fields to those that provided the context for the initial formation of the habitus (Friedman 2016: 131; McCloud 2012: 4). However, there can be social encounters in which a strong sense of disjuncture is felt between an individual's habitus and the social context in which they find themselves, leaving people feeling '"out on a limb", displaced, out of place and ill at ease' (Bourdieu 2000: 157). Such disjunctures can be so acute that a feeling of 'cleft, tormented habitus' is produced (Bourdieu 2000: 64): engagement with different fields can produce a 'destabilized habitus, torn by contradiction and internal division, generating suffering' (Bourdieu 2000: 160). Bourdieu suggests that '[s]uch experiences tend to produce a habitus divided against itself, in constant negotiation with itself and with its ambivalence, and therefore doomed to a kind of duplication, to a double perception of self, to successive allegiances and multiple identities (Bourdieu 1999: 511). Whilst underexplored in Bourdieu's empirical work, this experience of cleft habitus is evident in Bourdieu's own reflexive accounts which document the conflicted sense of self provoked through his engagement with the field of French academic life (Friedman 2016: 132; Reay 2015: 11).

3.2 Recent work by Abrahams and Ingram (2013), Friedman (2016) and Reay (2015) has demonstrated the untapped potential of this concept of cleft habitus through its application to empirical study of individuals' movement across different class fields. As Reay notes, exploration of the internal tensions of habitus and 'the degree of ease and/or discomfort' (2015: 22) experienced reveals the 'hidden, embodied and psychosocial injuries of social class that come with living in a deeply unequal society' (2015: 21). Reay highlights Bourdieu's observation that 'narratives about the most "personal" difficulties, the apparently most strictly subjective tensions and contradictions, frequently articulate the deepest structures of the social world and their contradictions' (Bourdieu 1999: 511), arguing that analysis of cleft habitus facilitates a richer understanding of the relationship between the subjective and the structural in class formation (Reay 2015: 22).

Class and religious identities

4.1 Empirical work on the lived experience of class has explored a variety of everyday spheres including relationships, family and the home (Johnson and Lawler 2005; Walkerdine et al. 2001), education (Addison and Mountford 2013; Allen 2014; Reay et al. 2009, 2010; Abrahams and Ingram 2013; Stahl 2013) and the workplace (Hebson 2009; Friedman 2016). However, study of the sphere of religious life and of how class and religious identities relate to one another has been relatively limited (however see Mellor 2010). In the sociological study of Christianity, attention to the cultural and subjective dimensions of class has often taken a back seat to class analysis employing 'objective' markers such as income and occupation due to the centrality of debates regarding theories of secularization within the discipline, and questions regarding the role of social class in relation to these (McCloud 2007; Nelson 1997). Focus on such debates has arguably deflected attention away from the study of other important ways that class impacts religion (McCloud 2007). There have been recent calls for 'resurrecting' class in the study of religion (McCloud 2007: 2), through the application of Bourdieusian and culturalist class analysis, which would allow for deeper exploration of how class shapes Christianity as it is embodied and lived in the everyday (see for example Nelson 1997; 2009). There has been relatively little consideration of the ways in which the 'psychic landscape of class' (Reay 2005: 912) shapes religious subjectivity, however, previous research does indicate that the emotional experience of 'living' class has significant impacts upon everyday lived religion (see for example Nelson 1997; Sharma and Guest 2013; Vincett and Olson 2012).

4.2 In relation to the particular religious context in this study, English evangelical Christianity, sociologists of religion have observed the predominantly middle-class contexts in which key evangelical networks have developed historically (Guest 2007: 27) and the middle-class status of many of its leaders and flagship churches has been highlighted (Guest 2007; Strhan 2012, 2015). Recent ethnographic study (Strhan 2012, 2015) of a conservative evangelical congregation in London examines the embodied nature of evangelical subjectivity and pays attention to how this is shaped by its metropolitan, urban location, including the classed nature of this context. However, overall, despite highlighting the classed nature of English evangelicalism, research on evangelical subjectivity has often primarily focused on the impact of gender and ethnicity with more limited attention to class (see for example Aune 2006; Baillie 2002; Hunt and Lightly 2001; Schaefer 2004; Toulis 1997).

Outline of the study

5.1 The data presented here were produced as part of a wider study, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The project examines the lived experience of class in the context of everyday ministry and explores the intersection of both middle-class and working-class identities with evangelical subjectivity. A notable feature of the evangelical movement is that it crosses denominational boundaries (Bebbington 1989; Marsden 1984; Warner 2007) and is centred on networks that extend beyond the bounds of local congregations through para-church organizations (Marsden 1984). The particular focus of this article is the experience of working-class evangelical ministers leading churches in working-class contexts who are also engaging with a predominantly middle-class field through participation in para-church contexts, such as evangelical conferences and ministry training forums, within wider evangelical networks. Applying Bourdieu's concept of cleft habitus outlined above, I explore the ways in which working-class church leaders experience and navigate feelings of cleft habitus in the course of movement across different class fields in the context of evangelical ministry.

5.2 The principal method used was in-depth semi-structured interviews with thirty-eight participants. Participant observation was also undertaken. Four interviews were focused on generating historical and contextual data and the remaining thirty-four interviews took place with participants that were engaged with the English evangelical networks that were the focus of this study. These included leaders that were involved in ministry across diverse social locations and in varying ministry contexts, for example, in church planting and revitalization, parish ministry, theological training and in leadership within para-church organizations. The interviews took place between 2011 and 2015. The choice of interview-location was left to the interviewee: the majority took place at the church or in the interviewee's home. Interviewees self-identified in terms of social class; there were some 'ambivalences and ambiguities' (Reay 1998: 59) in relation to self-identification as others have found (see Savage et al. 2001). Of the thirty-four interviewees, twenty-six identified as middle class, sometimes with qualification. Two described themselves as upper-middle class. One described their class as 'mixed'. Four interviewees identified as working class and one described themselves simply in terms of having a 'working-class background'. Information was also gathered on educational background, previous occupations prior to entering ministry, and parental occupations and education. There were four female interviewees. All but four of the interviewees were white. The sample contains a disproportionate number of white, middle-class males, however, this is consistent with the demographic profile of leadership within such networks.

5.3 I knew the initial participants interviewed in the study prior to the start of the research. I also utilized a 'snowballing' approach (Lindsay 2007) and on occasion a participant made an introduction to another participant on my behalf. Prior to the interviews I drew up an interview guide, however, this was not adhered to rigidly but used as a starting point with opportunities taken to ask reactive follow-up questions. The research was conducted in line with institutional ethical procedures. Prior to the interview, the participant was sent an information and consent form and informed consent was obtained. In the presentation of the data, all names have been changed. Interviews were transcribed in full. The transcripts were coded thematically and manually. The analysis has been driven by the empirical data with a process of repeated readings of the interview accounts whilst simultaneously reading theoretical literature (see also Mountford 2012: 85; Skeggs 1997: 22). The findings cannot be taken as generalizable, however they do offer qualitative depth, which would not be possible with a large sample of interviews, and allows for the exploration of the dynamics of identity formation among working-class evangelicals in a way that might helpfully inform future larger-scale studies.

5.4 Critical to researching evangelical subjectivity is an appreciation of the 'decisive identity change' (Guest 2007: 41) that conversion to Christ entails and the impact that this has upon individual subjectivity. In 'becoming a Christian' the evangelical understands themselves to have begun a new life 'in Christ' and Christian identity becomes the primary way of understanding the self. As Strhan highlights, 'to understand evangelicals' lived experience requires attending to their sense of relationship with God' (Strhan 2012: 39) and appreciating 'that the personality of God exerts agency in shaping their subjectivities' (2012: 40). For the conservative evangelical, theological understandings drawn from the Bible are central, as it is through scripture that evangelicals hear God speak and then subsequently 'seek to internalize His voice and shape their thoughts and practices according to His desires' (Strhan 2012: 40). So, whilst social relationships and interactions within the church community and other corporate Christian contexts remain key sites of analysis in the study of class and lived evangelicalism, exploration of the individual's understanding of their relationship to God is also critical in exploring the navigation of feelings of class difference. Moreover, social relationships and the individual's relationship with God are interwoven: relating to God has a strong corporate dimension, as the local church congregation and other transdenominational gatherings are sites where the Christian community gather to listen to God's words in the Bible and seek together to have their lives shaped by these (see Strhan 2012, 2015). For evangelicals, therefore, Christian identity is expressed corporately, primarily through participation in a local church congregation, but also through participation in evangelical para-church organizations.

Disrupting class boundaries

6.1 The narratives in this study suggest that 'becoming a Christian' facilitates social mix, prompting engagement in local church congregations and evangelical networks where relationships are forged around an identification 'along other than class lines' (Nast and Blockland 2014: 495; see also Furbey et al. 2006). Christian conversion and subsequent journey into church leadership immersed interviewees in contexts in which they increasingly come into contact with middle-class people. As Dominic explained:

it's only because I'm a Christian that I have so much to do with middle-class people. So I wouldn't be mixing with middle-class people very often…I'm aware of it because I'm with people a lot of the time that are different from me in that sense. And we've got more in common than not in common, in that we have the gospel and that's the main thing…You know I can't pray with my next-door neighbour because they're not even a believer.

Dominic's comment here was typical and is illustrative of a number of themes woven throughout the narratives: the primacy of Christian identity within evangelical subjectivity, the social mix that this shared Christian identity brings and the increased awareness of class identity that this often produces (Taylor 2007: 49).

6.2 Whilst the disruption of class boundaries that becoming a Christian and being involved in Christian communities brought was valued and celebrated, interviewees also articulated feeling the 'hidden injuries' of class (Sennett and Cobb 1977), feelings of shame or judgement, when class distinctions were reinforced. Michael recalled a conversation with a student who had recently started attending the church he leads, who would refer to the congregation as 'the ghetto church', and recounted to Michael one Sunday how she had attended 'a chav party'[2] dressed as a pregnant single mum the night before:

I'm sitting there thinking: 'Do you know where you are? My mum's just over there, she was a single mum, loads of us have grown up in single parent homes and you are going to parties where you make fun of that and then on the next morning you worship with us and tell us'. So it's like a dividing line that gets reinforced quite often at times when you are thinking 'Hey we're one in Christ' and then it comes up and it's like 'No, we're not one in Christ'.

6.3 In the extract, Michael refers to a biblical teaching from the New Testament Book of Galatians: 'There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, nor is there male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus' (Galatians 3:28, New International Version). This verse is understood to speak of the equal value, worth and status of all people within the family of God, a spiritual reality and a view of humanity that should find visible and practical expression in life together in the Christian community. In Michael's account, the church community provides an environment where class boundaries are transgressed through cross-class interaction. However within this context, the reinforcement of class distinctions is experienced as particularly painful and disappointing, representing a failure to reflect the unity of the shared Christian identity (see also Sharma and Guest 2013).

Cleft habitus and evangelical ministry

7.1 Whilst interviewees did recall class distinctions being felt within the local congregation on occasions, feelings of difference were articulated as more frequent and acute in relation to participation in wider evangelical networks. Michael recalled a discussion in which ministers were deliberating about appropriate language to use in relation to class:

and I was like, personally, I don't like 'underclass' because I remember the first time I was reading a Christian book and saw the word underclass; I was reading the word underclass, and tears welled up in my eyes cos I was like 'Wow, I always thought I was working-class but by their definition I'm underclass, I didn't even make it into the class system'. And then I thought: 'Here's a Christian writing about me this way, calling me underclass'. So there was an emotional sense of not wanting that.

Speaking about hearing negative portrayals of the working class, Michael expressed the affective impact this can have: 'When I hear it, it hurts', indicating the significant role that representations play in class formation (Skeggs 2004; Tyler 2006).

7.2 In reflection on participation in evangelical networks beyond the local congregation, the narratives move beyond the language of feelings of difference to that of cleft habitus. In a study of the emotional impact of social mobility, Friedman argues that both 'speed' (2016: 135) and 'distance' (2016: 136) travelled are significant factors in relation to the degree to which a sense of cleft habitus is experienced. Friedman suggests that 'sudden upward movement in social space can dislocate the habitus' (2016: 139). Through engagement with predominantly middle-class contexts within evangelicalism, working-class leaders experienced being 'plunged' quickly into contexts considerably higher in social space. Interviewees therefore at times 'travelled' both 'fast' and 'far'; conditions which, Friedman argues, are likely to exacerbate feelings of divided habitus.

7.3 Working-class interviewees articulated feeling a sense of isolation because so few other ministers within the movement are working-class. Michael reflected: 'you go to Christian conferences and the male speakers are different kinds of men to working-class men'. Referring to his work in ministry and the engagement in wider evangelical networks this precipitated, Dominic recalled how:

right from the start I just thought 'Man, I don't fit in with these people' and then, but I mean I've got to know people over the years and so I'm comfortable with them, but from the start it was like 'They're different to me.' And whenever I went to conferences everyone else is, you know, largely very middle class … Yeah, I mean, like me, we're buying our own house okay, but when I go to, when I go to conferences it's like I'm different to everyone.

7.4 Dominic's narrative highlights the importance of cultural as well as economic capital in relation to feelings of difference. One area in which class distinctions were acutely felt was embodied aspects of class, for example, accent or clothes, reflecting how '[t]he body and bodily dispositions carry the markers of social class…Class is always coded through bodily dispositions: the body is the most ubiquitous signifier of class' (Skeggs 1997: 82). Interviewees articulated feelings of 'a "habitus tug" where conflicting dispositions struggle for supremacy and the individual can at times feel pulled in different directions' (Ingram 2011: 290). Abrahams and Ingram found that working-class university students often 'feel they must change to try to get rid of "the signs of being born working class"' (2013: 4.20). Similar feelings were echoed as Michael recalled changes that he'd noticed in himself in the past: 'like I'd started becoming middle class, even though I'd never really be accepted, and I felt that part of being a Christian was all about chortling and all that kind of stuff and wearing chinos'. Michael articulates how he associated 'being a Christian' with what he perceived to be middle-class cultural characteristics that he then attempted to embody, whilst acknowledging the futility of this given how middle-class judgements may render him 'stuck' and 'fixed' in place (Skeggs 2004: 2). In such contexts the association between middle-class and Christian subjectivity may strengthen the impulse to 'take on' middle-class characteristics, driven by a desire not only to 'fit in' (Reay et al. 2010) but also to express Christian identity, which in the context of English conservative evangelical networks has an embodiment that is predominantly middle-class.

7.5 Moreover, embodied aspects of class also find expression within ministry practices, with interviewees identifying a typically emotionally restrained style of ministry by middle-class evangelical leaders (see also Strhan 2012: 161). This was felt to be very alien to working-class culture, which was considered to be more open, upfront and passionate (see Taylor 2007: 167). In the context of evangelical leadership, 'habitus tug' (Ingram 2011: 290) then is also felt in relation to the way bodily hexis (Bourdieu 1995: 93) is expressed in modes of preaching and teaching the Bible and evangelism; practices central to evangelical ministry. Noah expressed his feeling that there is 'a glass ceiling with regard to leadership' within evangelicalism in relation to class; working-class leaders can feel a lack of legitimation despite their shared commitment to the theological and doctrinal positions that are valued within the movement. This 'habitus tug' (Ingram 2011: 290) in relation to ministry practices indicates that over time within the field, ministry dispositions that are reflective of the collective middle-class habitus (Bourdieu 2000: 157) of the majority of evangelical leaders are more easily accepted as the 'right' way to do things (Skeggs 1997: 87).

Journeys into ministry

8.1 Feelings of class difference within the wider evangelical movement also had an impact upon interviewees' experience of their journey into their current work as a church minister. Dominic felt that his class identity resulted in feelings of doubt and uncertainty about being 'the wrong sort of person' for Christian ministry:

I think that it's meant I had a lot of self-doubt in the earlier years as a Christian and kind of felt like a fraud, I guess; do you know what I mean? Not, I didn't lack integrity, oh I have lacked integrity in the past but it wasn't that, it was more that just thinking 'I'm not really, I shouldn't really be leading a church'; do you know what I mean? I'm the wrong sort of person for it, the way that we are, people like us don't do it. But we are doing it.

8.2 Bourdieu highlights how in relation to the development of the habitus and an individual's position in social space, 'the dispositions acquired in the position occupied imply an adjustment to this position, what Goffman calls the "sense of one's place"' (Bourdieu 1989: 17). This is evident in Dominic's account, in his articulation that 'people like us don't do it', suggesting a sense of evangelical ministry being '"not for the likes of us"' (Bourdieu 1990: 56). This echoes Reay's (2005: 923) findings that working-class students 'seemed to feel that they failed to be the right person for traditional universities even when their level of achievement qualified them to apply'. Dominic speaks about having 'integrity' and here is referring to the 'qualifications' for church leadership – a level of moral integrity of character and spiritual maturity – that are stipulated in the New Testament as necessary qualifications for taking on the role of a church leader. In his narrative, Dominic expresses certainty and confidence that he possesses these qualifications yet still feels 'like a fraud'.

8.3 The narratives of working-class leaders also contained references to feelings of dislocation with regard to leadership development and theological education. Speaking about a ministry training course that he attended, Paul recounted:

I was accepted and I went and, do you know what, it was the best thing that I have ever done; it's been the most challenging, spiritually and personally and emotionally. I went there and I was like, no one intentionally set out to make me feel like I didn't fit in, that's the part of the council estate chip on my shoulder, made me feel like as soon as I turned up and heard people from Lancashire sounding like they were from, I don't know, but they just sounded, they weren't Lancashire … They were either doctors, I think someone on that course would be poorly qualified if they were a teacher (laughs); do you know what I mean? So like Oxbridge educated, some of the theological terms that they were using I couldn't even spell, I couldn't even pronounce never mind spell them.

8.4 Paul's narrative here resonates with the findings of Reay et al. (2009) in their exploration of the impact upon the habitus of working-class students crossing class fields through their attendance at elite universities. As Reay et al. (2009: 1105) note 'the resulting disjunctures can generate not only change and transformation, but also disquiet, ambivalence, insecurity and uncertainty (Reay 2005)'. Michael recalled how his experience of pursuing theological education had provoked thoughts of 'you're trying to pretend to be someone that you're not' and reflected upon how:

The opportunities that are out there for training really require confidence. I mean, when I applied … to do a theology degree it was so intimidating and I so nearly gave up a number of times. And part of me was thinking, 'Michael, who do you think that you are trying to get a theology degree, don't you know you're from an estate, you shouldn't be getting a theology degree'.

8.5 As illustrated by Paul's account above, such negative emotions were interwoven with positive feelings regarding the process of enrichment, development and equipping for ministry. However, the language reflecting disquiet and uncertainty present here was by contrast not a notable feature in the accounts of middle-class interviewees (see also Reay 2005: 922). These did not include expressions parallel to 'being the wrong sort of person' or pretending 'to be someone that you're not' in relation to their journeys into ministry or theological training: no expressions suggested a sense of conflicted self having been provoked. It is important to note however, that, whilst there were occasional references to feeling the negative judgements of others, overall, as Friedman found in his study of social mobility, 'the emotional imprint of this dislocation was felt less through the judgements of others and more through an internal self-doubt' (Friedman 2016: 140). Skeggs' study of working-class women suggests how such internal self-doubt may arise, arguing that '[t]he working class are never free from the judgements of imaginary and real others that position them, not just as different, but as inferior, as inadequate' and 'can never have the certainty that they are doing it right which is one of the main signifiers of middle-class dispositions (Bourdieu 1986)' (1997: 90).

The emotional terrain of class and pastoral ministry

9.1 Another area in which feelings of dislocation and disjuncture were expressed was in relation to the contrasting 'ontological conditions' (Skeggs and Loveday 2012: 482) experienced by working-class Christians in comparison to middle-class Christians. The material and emotional terrain of class as it is lived in the everyday (Reay 2005) was felt to be highly relevant to ministry, producing different pastoral issues faced by church leaders in their daily work. Skeggs and Loveday highlight the persistent, recurrent anxieties of working-class experience, the precarity of living '"on a knife-edge"' financially; everyday crises that can produce feelings of constant 'worry, guilt and shame' (2012: 482). They find that anger or resentment can be sparked by 'specific events' or 'encounters' in which people who, as one of the participants in their study recalled, have '"never struggled for anything in their lives ... are given the power to tell you how you should behave. It gets to me. They are in an entirely different space, an entirely different space, and they think they know about you"' (2012: 483). In this study, Michael felt that the encounter between a middle-class preacher and a working-class hearer in the activity of listening to a sermon had the potential to provoke similar emotions. Not only were the differences in the kinds of crises likely to be experienced significant, but also, in addition, feelings of a lack of understanding were also potentially exacerbated by the emotional tempo and middle-class restraint embodied in the act of preaching. As Michael expressed it:

If I go to a church and I'm a working-class man and I hear the middle-class preacher preach I'm probably not going to get any hint that he has struggle in his life, therefore, I'm going to say he can't talk to me because he doesn't know what I've been through. And when he tells me about God's love and God's provision I'll be, like, 'It's alright for you, you've got your inheritance and you've got all like whatever, nice stuff in life: you can't talk to me'. When he talks to me about being forgiven and Christ's righteousness, I'll be like 'Well, that's all right for you, but you haven't done the bad things I've done'.

9.2 Interviewees felt that the resources available within British evangelicalism to equip their ministry, such as evangelistic or discipleship courses, are of little use in ministry in working-class contexts. Dominic remarked that 'resources of all kinds tend to be middle-class' and 'there's nothing really much that we can use'. Michael reflected how:

you've got this self-perpetuating system. All the books that are written by British evangelicals are about middle-class Christianity and then that feeds even more into the system. And it means that when a working-class guy goes to get a book to help him in his Christian walk, he is forced to either acclimatize to middle-class culture and start becoming something that he isn't, or he says 'Forget this, this isn't for me'. Nothing tells me in these bookshops about how I deal with a baby mother who hates my guts and who won't let me see my kids and I've got to work out as a Christian what I do now. Am I free to marry someone else? Do I go through the court to get visitation rights? Or do I pray and fast and wait to see? What do I do? A young guy can't get a book on what do I do when I've just left a gang and there's the gang trying to get me back and I want to follow Jesus and another situation's come up and my family's threatened and the gang can help me and the church can't – what do I do?

9.3 Michael's narrative here demonstrates the relationship between subjective, personal experience in the 'psychic economy of class' (Reay 2015: 21) and broader, structural, material economies of class related to the circulation of resources within the evangelical movement. Here we see how the possession of the cultural and economic capital that enables the production of ministry resources and books results in feelings of exclusion experienced at the subjective level. Michael's concern is not only with the feelings of dislocation that this produces in his personal experience but with the implications of this for Christian ministry amongst working-class people. Michael articulates his fear that this sense of cleft habitus may leave working-class Christians finding it difficult to envisage the possibility of holding together a Christian and working-class identity.

Navigating cleft habitus in evangelical ministry

10.1 How then are such feelings of disjuncture and the affective impacts of class negotiated by working-class evangelical leaders? How is 'the difficulty of managing movement across two different and at times opposing fields' (Reay 2015: 13) navigated? Recent analyses of cleft habitus (Abrahams and Ingram 2013; Friedman 2016; Reay 2015) have revealed the varied and considerable work involved in overcoming the sense of being caught 'between two worlds' (Friedman 2016: 145). The narratives in this study support these findings, revealing high levels of labour exerted in diverse and creative ways. Whilst religious subjectivity provides the context for movement across different class fields due to leaders' participation within evangelical networks as outlined above, Christian identity is also critical to interviewees' navigation of this movement. This labour towards the resolution of feelings of cleft habitus is motivated by the drive to demonstrate the possibility of an identity that is both evangelical and working-class and to find fresh ways of 'doing church' appropriate for the social location that the interviewees are ministering in. Whilst the strength of the 'habitus tug' (Ingram 2011: 290) within evangelical networks was strongly articulated, the narratives also reveal active resistance with interviewees striving to challenge the conflation of middle-class and Christian subjectivity.

Reflexivity and resistance

11.1 Bourdieu has suggested that experiences of cleft habitus can provoke individuals to 'practical reflection' (2000: 162), and Friedman (2016: 145) found that movement across different class fields gave rise to 'a unique capacity for reflexivity and self-analysis' in his participants. Such capacity was also evident in this study in the articulation of insightful reflections on working-class and middle-class culture, and the culture of contemporary evangelicalism. Interviewees challenged representations of the working class within both evangelical culture and wider society, demonstrating a 'refusal to accept inscription and be bound by its value' (Skeggs 2004: 13). Dominic observed, in relation to the media, that 'it's obvious that middle-class people have written the script, you know, obvious because it's all stereotypes'. Noah felt that within evangelical contexts 'there are more polite stereotypes offered, people won't be so malicious, knowingly or unknowingly, but will often buy into the media stereotypes … and I think maybe that's because for many that's their only exposure to the working class'. Michael reflected how:

When I hear a middle-class Christian make flippant judgments or observations about council estate culture … I'm like 'Man, there are Christians out there who are making these comments about us, who have they asked? Where do they get their information from?' … People make comments about people on the estate being lazy and then I feel the consciousness come up, and I'm thinking 'Really, you know they're lazy, how do you know they're lazy? Have you done a sociological study of their life?' You can't say they're lazy cos you see them at the chip shop. You need to look into their life a bit more and ask certain questions.

11.2 In the accounts, 'loyalty to class and community' (Reay 2015: 14) was evident, as was a drawing upon working-class characteristics. The narratives were infused by stories of persistence and resilience (see also Reay 2005; 2010) seen, for example, in Paul's 'determination' to stay the course of theological education. However, the accounts indicate that the strongest motivation for the labour towards a working-class expression of Christianity was interviewees' Christian subjectivity. Interviewees articulated that understanding their identity as a Christian and their relationship with God gave them a sense of worth, value and status. One of the times of heightened emotion in the interviews occurred when a working-class interviewee was describing what it meant to him to have received God's forgiveness and 'a new life in Christ'. Dominic spoke in terms that indicated that the security of his Christian identity enabled a resistance to the negative affective impacts of class (cf. Toulis 1997: 164): 'I'm quite confident as a child of God regardless of my class, it's got nothing to do with it and so I'm okay about that'.

Creative possibilities

12.1 Friedman finds that for the interviewees in his study, navigating the feelings of divided habitus can involve an 'exhausting amount of mental work, a load only intensified by the fact that this was largely a solitary undertaking' (Friedman 2016: 145). This was also the case here; navigating the lived experience of class in the context of evangelical ministry was not easy and is often experienced as lonely and isolated given the small numbers of working-class leaders within the movement. In this study, the labour exerted in the negotiation of class is not only emotional and intellectual but also takes the particular form of theological reflection, with interviewees drawing on the Bible to challenge some of the assumptions of both the evangelical movement and wider society. Interviewees did not reject an evangelical identity; rather they highlight the ways in which practices within the evangelical movement are classed and, reflecting their doctrinal commitment to the authority of scripture, they do so through drawing upon the Bible. Dominic commented:

So I think that God does have a heart for estates and for people on estates and I think that he would identify with the plight of people on estates and I think if Jesus was to come to our city he'd probably come to the estates, that's my feeling. I think if Jesus was to address the churches, I think he would be, I wouldn't, I don't know if he would rebuke them, but I think he would want to open their eyes to the way that the church tends to be prejudiced I think, and isolated or cut off, well, how actually these are the areas that are isolated and ghettoized from mainstream church, you know. Churches just don't touch on estates really at all.

Michael recalled the surprise he had initially felt when he found answers in the Bible to help him care pastorally for people in relation to the everyday issues they face on the estate. He had not heard such issues spoken about in other churches or within the wider evangelical movement:

Oh the Bible does talk about this! It was then that I kind of was like, hang on a minute there is a Christianity for council estates but it's not in the middle-class churches, they don't know… the Bible is so relevant to my culture and all this stuff has been hidden from me and that was then what really got me thinking that the Bible is relevant for council estate culture. The middle-class churches I've been in, I don't think they ever think through these issues. It doesn't seem relevant to them but I want to mine the Bible and find all this stuff that speaks to my culture.

12.2 Abrahams and Ingram observe that, alongside the emotional costs, there is the potential for positive and creative possibilities to emerge from the reflexive capacity produced by 'habitus rupture' (2013: 4. 21). The theological labour that interviewees were engaged in resulted in the innovative development of resources for ministry contextualized to working-class culture, for example in the production of evangelistic video material presenting the message of the gospel and the development of music for use in Sunday services. As Michael explained: 'I decided to make the music, instead of it being soft rock, which I felt would just reiterate the idea that this is a middle-class religion, instead I made it urban so our music will have a reggae vibe to it, have a dance music vibe to it, it will have a soulful vibe to it'. Here the 'fissures and gaps' opened up through the experience of cleft habitus also offer potential for change rather than reproduction (McCloud 2012: 4).

12.3 As Michael's response demonstrates, underpinning the development of such ministry practices was the drive to have a working-class expression of evangelical Christianity and a desire to avoid people feeling that to be Christian entails becoming middle class. Noah reflected on how within evangelicalism 'actually there are those who seem to have come up from a working-class background but then they've kind of assimilated to the middle-class culture … so where they've assimilated to the middle-class culture, their working-class kind of distinctives have been lost' and interviewees expressed a desire to resist and disrupt this assimilation. Dominic explained his practice in relation to discipling people in the church as he engages in helping them to live out the Bible's teaching in their daily lives:

Dominic: …in the actual discipleship training, because we're having to make sure that they understand what godliness is, so we have to address class in the discipleship so that they don't start to think that all the other Christians are what they are aspiring to, so in that context we will talk about it.
Joanne: Okay. And you would talk about that quite explicitly?
Dominic: Yeah, yeah, and again that's affirming people as they are, so I think middle-class people don't need that because no one needs to say to them 'You just stay middle class, you know, don't think you've got to become working class', they don't need to be told that, it's not, that's right, it's not going to happen is it?

It is important to note that interviewees not only question assumptions and practices within the evangelical movement; they also challenge prevalent ideas related to class within wider society. As Dominic expressed it:

It's not just the church but society [that] wants people to be middle class, often even working-class people, or they want what middle-class people have got … media portrays the lower working class in such a way that it's so undesirable; who wants to become a chav?

12.4 The interviewees in this study do not 'buy into' the current 'rhetoric of aspiration and concurrent framing of upward mobility as an unequivocal good' (Allen 2013: 761). Their Christian subjectivity and a desire to be shaped by the Bible's teaching means that they seek to adhere to values which often cut across those of society. Social mobility is not understood as unequivocally beneficial, but not just because of the emotional cost of moving across different class fields (Friedman 2016: 130). Rather, the interviewees' Christian identity produces alternative notions of success and status. This was evident in interviewees' reflections on their own spatial and social location. As Michael explained:

I'm living here to serve Jesus, no one else is going to do it so we are going to do it, so we are going to stay here. And that's something I try to, so some of my sermons are just encouraging people to stay living on the estate and say let's glorify God in this place.

Concluding discussion

13.1 This article has considered some of the subjective, affective impacts of class in everyday lived religion through listening to the voices of working-class evangelical leaders as they navigate perpetual movement across different class fields in the course of their ministry. The accounts reveal diverse ways in which class shapes everyday religious life and supports the contention that experiences of cleft habitus may be more frequent than anticipated by Bourdieu (Friedman 2016: 145), illustrating ways in which 'class operates just as powerfully at the individual level as it ever did on a collective level' (Reay 2005: 924).

13.2 The accounts also demonstrate that interviewees' Christian identity is central to the navigation of feelings of disjuncture and dislocation. For Friedman (2014: 363), exploration of experiences of cleft habitus is significant in 'illustrating how – via enduring and embodied dispositions – the present is always configured through the ontological tug of the past'. Yet, in the narratives in this study, it is not only the past that exerts an ontological tug but also interviewees' Christian subjectivity and their understanding of their identity 'in Christ' and God's 'call' on their life. Lawler (2008) notes that social relationships are critical to the production of a sense of self and this article has explored some of the particular ways in which class is played out relationally within religious communities. However, the accounts also demonstrate the centrality of relationship with God in evangelical subjectivity and how God both 'exerts agency' and produces agency (Strhan 2012: 40) in relation to interviewees' classed subjectivities, as they respond to the character of God as revealed in the Bible. For interviewees, Christian identity provides a new source of value, status and worth; a new way of understanding self and others. The working-class evangelical leaders in this study respond to God by seeking to 'make Jesus known', motivated to make possible, and visible, a working-class expression of Christianity, a Christian community and presence that is not culturally 'at odds' with life in the social context that they are ministering within. In so doing, these leaders cut across the political discourse and tropes of aspiration and social mobility of British society (Allen 2013; Friedman 2014, 2015): 'the notion that becoming middle class should be an aspiration because being working class is "bad", something which individuals must escape (Skeggs 2004; Tyler 2013)' (Allen 2014: 761 emphasis in the original). For the interviewees being working class is not something to be moved 'out' or 'away' from (Lawler 1999: 3). In place of dis-identifications of class (Skeggs 1997: 75), there was an active claiming of an identity that is both Christian and working-class, a proactive carving out of space for working-class Christians to be, as Michael expressed it, 'the person God made me to be.'


I am deeply thankful to the individuals who agreed to be interviewed and whose participation made this study possible. I wish to acknowledge my gratitude to the AHRC for funding this study and to Dr. Mathew Guest, Prof. Yvette Taylor and Dr. Sarah-Jane Page for comments on earlier drafts of this article.


1 Historian David Bebbington (1989: 3) identifies four evangelical priorities: 'conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and what may be called crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross'. Within the sociology of religion, these priorities are widely accepted as a starting point for understanding evangelical distinctives (see for example Guest 2007; Strhan 2012; Warner 2007). Bebbington (1989: 182) charts the development of two wings within British evangelicalism in the 1920s – conservative and liberal – and identifies the conservative wing as being marked by a commitment to the Bible as 'uniquely trustworthy and authoritative'. There was considerable diversification within this wing during the 20th century, with it now encompassing a range of theological perspectives, including charismatic evangelicals, a group that emerged in the 1960s.

2 Tyler (2006) observes the rise of the phenomenon of the 'chav party': 'Experiencing the frisson of acting like a chav has become a major leisure occupation in Britain where middle-class students now regularly hold "chav nites", in which they dress up as chavs and chavettes. These students dress as chavs, carry plastic bags from the cut-price food superstores, drink cider and listen to 'chav music', in order to enjoy the affect of being an imaginary chav' (Tyler 2006: 14).


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