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Suburban & Urban Spirituality

By Gary Jenkins.

In 2001, I took a journey of 12 miles and entered another world.

Our family moved from the St Helier Estate, the largest council estate south of the Thames, where 40,000 Londoners were housed on a ‘garden estate’ in the 1930s by the London County Council, to Redhill, a commuter town of 30,000 people in Surrey.

It was another world and quite soon I realised I was experiencing the contrast between suburban and urban church life. Here are a few of the contrasts I have observed over the years.

Large congregations v. Small congregations

In the Church of England at least, the larger congregations are either in the city centres or in the suburbs. Even on a low Sunday, church attendance in Redhill was two or three times higher than peak attendance in St Helier. With larger congregations came manpower and financial resources of which the urban church could only dream. In Holy Trinity, Redhill, there were more people on the flower rota than in the entire congregation of our St Helier daughter church! In St Helier the church building that was never full, in Redhill it was full to bursting every week. Truly we had entered another world.

Doing things well v. doing things spontaneously

In the suburban church, there is a focus on doing things well. They are often done very well indeed, by highly able, committed, deeply reliable, servant hearted people.

In the urban church people have the same servant heart, but lives are chaotic and definitely not diary-led. People react to events as they happen. Typically, church life is a bit disorganised and very spontaneous. It’s still good to have a plan, but you have to be ready to change it at a minute’s notice or tear it up altogether. You can never be absolutely certain what is going to happen on any one Sunday. Sometimes even the churchwardens don’t turn up.

On the other hand, people like spontaneous things in the urban church and the last-minute, slightly chaotic nature of church life feels OK – it’s like life itself. The congregation know the service has not been perfect, but, hey, who’s perfect anyway?

In Redhill the average person would be mortified if something went wrong, whereas in St Helier they loved it and that brings us to the next contrast..

Seriousness v. having a laugh

Business meetings in Redhill were deadly serious, well-run, and strongly focussed on task. Business meetings in St Helier were characterised by gales of laughter. People loved being together, and when they weren’t actually falling out with each other (long running feuds, tantrums and squabbles were another feature of the prevailing culture), there was nothing people enjoyed more than a good laugh – usually focussed on what really interests people in the urban church: people.

Lots of money v. Lack of money

“We’ve never not done anything for lack of money” a senior lay leader in Redhill told me quite early on in my time there. I reeled at the thought. From the perspective of the urban church, the abundance of cash was one of the biggest culture changes in moving to the suburbs. Actually, we got by in St Helier – in fact we more than got by – but that owed something to generous subsidy from the Diocese, occasional acts of generosity by wealthier Christians outside, and the generous giving of time and talents by the congregation. However, money itself was in short supply. The clergy were almost the best paid members of the congregation.

In Redhill there was much more money, but also much more anxiety about money. In the St Helier church, you were grateful if you had anything! In the Redhill church, you worried that you didn’t have enough.

Privacy v. openness

One of the great suburban values is privacy. People find it hard to share problems or weaknesses with even close Christian friends. Bible study questions that get a bit personal tend to be batted away, and in any case, people prefer studies that deal in facts, not feelings. Lots of people in Redhill preferred the Bible study questions in advance – I’m not just talking about the leaders. Why? So they could come prepared with the right answer.

By contrast, openness, wearing your heart on your sleeve, was the great St Helier virtue. People would reveal the most intimate secrets, even during an act of public worship. Problems, weaknesses and difficulties, were not hidden but shared.

Achievement v. Acceptance

The great strength of middle class culture is its focus on achievement. People want to get on. They particularly want their children to get on. Translated into church life and the Christian life, people are willing to put in the sheer hard work and effort needed to advance God’s kingdom. People want to achieve spiritually themselves and they want their church to achieve. People tend to value themselves and others for their achievement, more for what they do than for who they are.

No one was against achievement in St Helier, but achievement was not their main aim, either for themselves or their children, In Redhill, we always prayed for young people doing exams in Sunday intercessions. No one ever thought of doing this in St Helier, but your parents did give you a day off school when it was your birthday (unthinkable in high-achieving Redhill).

By contrast, the great St Helier value was acceptance. You were accepted for who you were, and not what you did. Estate churches can be cliquey and grumbly, but, at their best, they model a wonderful inclusive love that says “Come and join us and make yourself at home” (a classic working class phrase, and the ultimate invitation to acceptance.

Individual v. Group

In middle class culture, the individual is king and, in the world of evangelical Christianity, which rightly stresses personal relationship with Christ, that factor is heightened.

Working class culture, by contrast, values the group more than the individual. Solidarity is the great working class virtue (“There’s nothing more important than being loyal to your family”, my parents told me as a boy). The trade union is the great working class invention. It is no coincidence that a documentary about the old working class culture of Bermondsey (where I currently minister) was titled “We was all one.”

Testimonies given by working class Christians nearly always include something never mentioned by middle class Christians: the church. “I’ve got a wonderful new family” is as much part of their story as “I have a wonderful new saviour.” In that sense, working class Christianity seems instinctively to ‘get’ the corporate dimension of Scripture more than middle class culture, which reads the Bible through the lens of the individual.


This has been a picture painted with broad brush strokes. I have had to generalise. I might have exaggerated the differences a bit, but the differences are real, and I believe it’s worth considering these differences in culture which profoundly affect the way the Faith is received and which, perhaps, ought to shape mission strategies more than they currently do.

Gary Jenkins

Vicar of St James and St Anne, Bermondsey

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You are reading Suburban and Urban Spirituality by Gary Jenkins, part of Issue 66 of Ministry Today, published in March 2016.

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