Have we shut out the poor from Christian festivals?

I’m feeling a bit bad for not having previously given this month’s National Day of Prayer and Worship (NDOP) at Wembley a plug on this blog yet.  It’s such a powerful opportunity for Christians of all backgrounds to get together and pray for our nation and worship God in a public way.

Last week the Evangelical Alliance’s website published the news that NDOP will be giving away free places for the event to the homeless, poor and marginalised.  This is the reason behind the decision:

Jonathan Oloyede, who runs NDOP, said following a prayer meeting last week that the team were given a word from Luke 14:15-24. He said: “The Lord was calling out to all His people, especially those on the margins and outside the warm huddle of church life to come to worship with their family.

“‘Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled’.”

He told the Alliance: “GDOP would like to see everyone irrespective of their culture, class or creed united for the Kingdom. One of our friends has made this possible through their generous donation. We are therefore calling out to agencies working with the homeless and marginalised to bring them to Wembley.

This is great news and encouraging that the decision came from spending time seeking God’s heart.  Although tickets to the event are a relatively modest £10 per person, it is an acknowledgment that its doors should be open to as many as possible.  Income and ability to pay should not be a hinderance for those who wish to come and intercede, pray and worship at such an event.

Curiously on the same day that I found this article on NDOP, I also read Stuart James post at eChurch on his frustration at not being able to attend Greenbelt due to costs.  Both of the pieces tackled the same subject from different angles:  Stuart started by looking at Greenbelt’s mission page on their website.  This is what he writes:

Here’s the part that really interests me:

Our history is firmly rooted within a Christian tradition which is world-affirming, politically and culturally engaged. Ours is a belief that embraces instead of excludes. And, as such, the festival is family-friendly celebration, inclusive and accepting of all, regardless of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, background or belief.

Did you notice the “embraces instead of excludes” and “inclusive and accepting of all”? Now contrast this with a Tweet I noted earlier:

£25 for a benefits claimant to get into #gb12 tomorrow? Can any jobseeker really afford that? I can’t! #excluded #disappointed

The irony is that I’ve never attended Greenbelt and the reason for this is that I’ve never been in a position to afford to do so, even though I live relatively nearby in Gloucestershire.

Way out of my league frankly. But if you’re in receipt of benefits, or a lone parent, and can prove it, you may purchase a concession ticket for the price of £25 per person per day, or £70 for a single parent family.

I’m no expert in benefits, but from my brief investigation these ‘concession’ tickets amount to roughly half the weekly income of those on benefits. Not forgetting costs for travel, food, etc needed for the day itself.

This doesn’t come across as exceptionally ‘embracing’ and ‘inclusive’ of the poor does it…

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not naive, this is a commercial enterprise and so the argument will be thrown back that these prices are commensurate with other festivals. But is Greenbelt just another festival or does it have a distinct and special ethos?

As the season of Christian summer festivals draws to a close.  These two articles have got me thinking about how Christianity in our country still favours the more well off.  For many Christians attending a festival such as Greenbelt or Spring Harvest is a major highlight of the year and a chance to hear excellent speakers, enjoy worshipping God with many others with top quality music and be spiritually fed.  I attend New Wine regularly and I would say that this is the case for me.  But for a family of five like us, it gets pretty expensive even if you’re on a healthy income.

To be fair to the festivals they have to charge sufficient amounts to break even, otherwise they wouldn’t happen.  They’re also not in it to make money.  Greenbelt do give away 200 free places a year and Spring Harvest offer a limited number of heavily discounted tickets to those on low incomes as an acknowledgement that not everyone can afford full prices.  I suspect they would offer more if it was financially viable.  As it is there are still going to be plenty of people wishing they could go but knowing it’s out of their reach.

One festival I know of that has adopted a different approach is Creationfest, which takes place at the Royal Cornwall Showground every August.  It’s completely free to attend.  Not only does this remove all financial barriers to attending, but it also makes it easier to invite those who are from outside the church or who just want to taste what a Christian festival is like.  I’ve been and it’s really well run.  They do charge for camping which makes it less attractive if you’re coming from a distance, but it’s great if you’re local or holidaying in the area.  It’s financially supported by a number of Christian organisations and individuals.  Perhaps this is a model that could be adopted by some other festivals or other new ones started with the same intentions.

What this comes down to is how we as a church support those fellow Christians who are less well off.  If we feel that attending such festivals is of value then isn’t it right that within our congregations we do what we can to get round the financial barriers that most of these festivals present?  I know some churches do this and to me it’s a natural extension of all the other work churches do with the poor and disadvantaged.  Attending festivals may not always be seen as a priority, but supporting poor Christians within our congregations, however we judge that to be done appropriately is just as important as supporting those in other countries and working with the poor outside the church wherever that may be.

Categories: Benefits & unemployment, Church, Poverty

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25 replies

  1. I have a son who, having studied politics and media at Uni came home with a very jaundiced view of the commerciality behind a lot of Christian enterprises (the cost of CDs in particular). I know that there are costs to these things but perhaps the Keswick Convention approach would be one others could adopt – there is no charge for attendance but collections are taken and people encouraged to become Partners who both pray for and give regular financial support to the Convention. You give what you can but can attend even if you can’t give. Of course you will have to pay travel and accommodation costs – but even then you make the choice – you could walk and sleep rough if you wished as there are even showers and toilets on site.

    • Thanks for this John. I have heard a lot of good things about the Keswick Convention, but wasn’t aware of how it is financed. This is again an excellent model of how a festival can be run effectively whilst making it accessible to everyone. The model obviously works for them as the convention has been running since 1875.

    • I am currently doing an Alpha Course at HTB, and this weekend is our weekend away – now the cost to go on this is pretty high, but they have a strict policy, that they would much rather people went than didn’t because they can’t afford it – now I’m a student, and definitely cannot afford it, but they have made a way for me to go, those that can afford to pay full price, those that can’t, give what they can, and those who are more than comfortable are donating more, to allow for others to be able to go. This is how I feel Christian events and even merchandise should be. I normally work at Christian festivals over the summer, which means I can go for free, which is great, and then I go to Momentum for myself, but even now I don’t know how I’m going to afford Momentum, you’d think, having spent most of my summer in Shepton Mallet working at their festivals – they would find a way to let me receive at Momentum

  2. Good post. Hopefully the discussion will ‘get out there’ & some of the festivals mentioned will think of creative ways to be more inclusive towards those with financial challenges.
    Perhaps encourage their own festival goers who have means to pay more than the ticket price and contribute towards subsidising a place for someone who has less or no financial means (our church is doing this for the weekend away later this year)

    • Thanks Jo. Judging by the surprisingly large number of people who have read this so far, it’s something that people care about. Some festivals sell out, but not all and your suggestion of festival goers subsidising tickets is one I think some festivals should consider seriously.

  3. As a mum to four daughters , like many I’d find the cost of attending events like Greenbelt prohibitive so attend as a volunteer. Its not only the cost of buying a ticket that has to be taken into account but on site food and even the cost of getting kitted out with camping gear. We were lucky to be able to borrow tents etc So yes subsidised tickets might be a soolution but it wouldn;t go all the way to meeting the costs………

  4. Somebody missed the bit on the Greenbelt website about them giving away 200 free tickets to those they consider need them most: http://www.greenbelt.org.uk/boxoffice/open-festival/

  5. I had a twitter discussion a couple of weeks ago about the demographics of those attending Greenbelt, New Wine etc. (White, middle class) and what could be acheived by the church in deprived communities with the money spent putting these jamborees on.

    • I would never advocate stopping these festivals as they do a huge amount of good in many different ways, but you’re right about them being predominantly white middle class. It’s very obvious when you attend them that this is the case.

      • Is being predominantly white middle-class necessarily a problem? There are other events that are predominantly black, I know that UK Chinese churches have get-togethers and so on. There does seem to be a strand of thinking that objects to the white middle-class being catered for in any way; we should presumably sit around at home, invisible, singing songs around the piano (because heaven forbid there should be any TV or radio programs catering for us…)

        Yes, racial and class mixing is good, but sometimes it’s also good for people to have things that are culturally appropriate, tailored to them, rather than forcing every peg into a one-size-fits-nobody hole. My local Chinese church has services in Cantonese and Mandarin, with simultaneous translation into English on headphones. They might get a wider racial diversity if their services were in English, with Cantonese and Mandarin on the headphones — they might actually get a couple of non-Chinese. Should they feel guilty for not doing so?

        • You’re right Tim. Like does tend to attract like. You see that in our communities including our churches. As long as you’re putting God’s values first rather than thinking everyone should be like you and share your lifestyle then you shouldn’t be beating yourself up if a festival doesn’t have a wide mix of people from different backgrounds.

          There’s nothing inherently wrong with being white and middle class. I’m just that. When I go to New Wine I see plenty of people who look well off judging by their clothes and accents. I also see these people being incredibly generous with their money and giving hundreds of thousands of pounds away in the offerings taken up for charities and Christians in poor countries.

          We need to look to reach out to everyone around us, but often the people we can present the gospel to most easily is people with lives we understand i.e. people like us. In a similar sort of way I’m giong to find it easier to worship God when I’m in an environment where I feel at ease.

    • Huge festivals like New Wine or Greenbelt might consider having a “Touring” version which brings the event+speakers to deprived areas eg inner cities, high-rise blocks. Arts companies do this, (using up-&-coming artistes) to take music to rural, remote communities. These are subsidised, yes; but wealthy churches might subsidise touring festivals as part of their outreach? And festivals offering a BOGOF would be am option, too. The point here is to take the festival to where people ARE, so no travel/camping costs are involved.

  6. i did greenbelt from 93 to 99 either as a student (1year) unemployed or in voluntary work paying ‘living expenses’ (actually those years i was back signing on over the summer) view it as a day out its pricey, view it as your annual holiday not so. the discounts offered in % terms are actually rather impressive. simiarly there are many many volunteer oportunities as greenbelt that come with free tickets and food vouchers (and discounted ticket for partners) , no its not perfect but greenbelt doing an awful lot and there is the question if the responsibilty should be entirely on greenbelt? churches booking as groups can and do subsidise tickets. children, youth and family tickets are again heavily reduced. i share the concern on accessibility but taking cheap badly informed pot shots at greenbelt not helpfull.

    • Thank you for the valuable comments and shedding some light on the opportunities available. I think you’re right about where the responsiblities lie. I think Stuart also made a valuable point about the difficulties if you have a family. I think we all have to accept that depending on our circumstances we’re not always going to get what we want, but it’s still good to ask these questions.

    • creation fest seems to be being held up as good example but camping there is 10 quid a night, no mention of any concessions online and as a 7 day event thats £70 compared to greenbelts advanced price for concessions of £75 and comparing line ups greenbelt is offering far far more for your money. sure you can do just part of it but leaving a fest early youd feel like you were missing something (actually youd have to pay me to do creation that line up looks horrible)

      • That’s an important point and one that I’d missed going as a local. I’ve updated the post to mention this. Camping for the week definitely makes it less attractive. If you’re paying out for a week then Greenbelt does offer better value for money. Greenbelt is an excellent festival and I hope the article doesn’t give the impression that it isn’t.

  7. I do like the idea of worship weekends with teams travelling around to various parts of the country, a kind of updated version of the Billy Graham crusades. I like very much the idea of the National day of prayer and worship soon to take place at Wembley stadium. Football stadiums would in fact be ideal venues. It may not be so comprehensive in terms of teaching because of time and logistics but would give people a taster of what a festival might be like. Many Christians i know have never been to a festival probably because of the cost and travelling. We attend spring harvest each year and i have been quite ignorant until recently of just how many Christian festivals there are. Festivals are generally attended by Christians but putting something on the doorstep might encourage more non Christians to come along.

  8. The bottom line (literally) is that someone has to pay.

    I used to work for a ministry that ran day conferences on a variety of topics. We’d hire church halls, pay for the guest speakers, arrange refreshments, photocopy the handouts, provide staff to pray for people etc etc. Once we factored in the time of our staff preparing for the events we worked out these events cost us something like £2,000 and we could expect about 100 to come.

    So, we charged £20 for the day, and we let it be known that if folks were willing to give a little more, that would enable us to subsidise someone who couldn’t stretch to the full ticket price. Often times that is what would happen, but quite regularly it didn’t.

    So we’d have maybe 15 people who had paid £10 instead of £20 and maybe no-one giving extra. So, it’s only £150 down you might say, what’s the big deal? Well, who takes the hit? Do we say to the speaker, well the arrangement we had is void, we can’t cover your travel now, do we pick a couple of team members at random and say we’ll split the cost between them, and they’ll each get £75 less that week, sorry? Do we say, well in future we’ll not provide handouts or coffee or give as good an experience? Or should we hike the prices to make sure that we don’t have to rely on generosity of individuals but that every full-paying attender coming, without choice, pays more to ensure there’s enough in the kitty for those who can’t afford the full fee?

    Don’t be fooled by the idea that a few extra people makes no difference to the overall cost, it does, they need the same level of service, the same paperwork, care, refreshments etc as everyone else, and their very welcome presence there means we need a hall that can accommodate all who want to come

    Well, here’s what we did, we spread the hit out amongst our whole team and we’d pray that the food in the cupboard would stretch that bit further.

    And even then we would have people who would object to the very notion of having to pay for a Christian event at all. Often when asked who should pay then, they would reply that everyone should give their time for free, that we should find people who would not charge for halls, beg a church’s photocopier, not have paid staff working there….

    Friends, here’s the thing. If we want to experience high quality, well run, well resourced events, someone has to pay. And, sadly, there will always be some who will not be able to afford to do everything they would like.

    Here’s my solution. Churches should be churches, That’s the place where people ought to find the support, the shared communal life, the common resourcing that enables people to do more than they could do alone. It is the local church that ought to be functioning as the kind of family that pools resources to provide for the less well off, and it’s the local church that should be more aware of the needs of its members, and seek to respond appropriately to that.

    That Greenbelt and others provide free and subsidised entry should be praised, because they are covering up for the failure of the local church…

  9. Most people I know – who are white middle class – see these festivals as their main holiday and there’s a lot to commend people for who choose to spend their holiday in a unattractive field with lousy washing and toilet facilities just to be together and learn about God. They don’t have loads of money – quite the opposite.

    When you look at what festivals like Spring Harvest, New Wine and Greenbelt provide – childcare, big name musicians, top speakers – then they are very good value for money even for a family of 5. When it’s your main holiday then it is really is the cheapest option around even if you do have to pay full price because there is something for everyone and once on site, you don’t have to pay for any of it and you save petrol as you don’t even have to use a car. There’s also a lot to do for free if the weather is bad (not the case with Keswick where the site is very spread out and there’s not as much to do with children). Plan ahead though and you get a discounted rate, invest in a tent (buy second hand at this time of year) and look after it and it will last for years.

    This article gives the impression that people are being priced out of these festivals but I don’t think that’s true. People on low incomes (including people who are working) are always going to find the luxuries of life – which holidays are – difficult to manage. A couple of years ago we couldn’t afford to go anywhere so my husband went as a volunteer to Greenbelt – not only did he get in free, he also got food vouchers so all it cost him was the travel to get there. He has a challenging full time job and if any one should have felt entitled to a holiday it was him but he didn’t moan about – he just recognised that if he could only go for free by working his passage that’s what he would do and what’s wrong with expecting that from other able bodied people who are strapped for cash?

    Churches should be alert to the financial challenges of some members and people on the fringe and be generous with their hospitality, making holidays possible for those who are financially struggling. Churches also need to be wise about it though – there are a lot of folk who have a rather distorted view of what they are entitled to in this consumerist society we live in – one family in my last church who were always pleading poverty, thought we should pay for them to go to New Wine – they had 4 children in private schools and insisted that they needed to hire a caravan – we did offer them a very large tent like the rest of us were using – they declined to use it!

  10. I’d like to suggest that inclusivity needs to run deeper than just finance, however. On one of the last Christian conventions I attended I spent most of the sessions thinking how inaccessible they would have been for many people with lower levels of literacy, educational ability or simply of education.

    • It’s hard to say Greenbelt is not inclusive as there is stuff for everyone – poetry, art, music of all sorts, sports, dance, drama, films, lots of different sessions from the academic to the uneducated on a variety of subjects – it would be very hard to find nothing to go to regardless of your background. The only people it does not cater to are those who aren’t inclusive themselves. Some people would probably find it too inclusive in terms of activities and theology.
      New Wine also has a very dedicated ministry for mentally disabled people and children that parents speak about highly. You might not be aware of it unless you either need it or did a tour of the site which is how I discovered it. Truly impressive.
      The last time I went to Spring Harvest there were several different levels to engage with based on the national papers – ideally you chose the one you most identified with (ie The Sun to the Guardian). Another year it was based around which radio stations you preferred.
      How else do you suggest that conferences can be inclusive? I’m not sure what else they would have to do with the resources they have available to them?

      • Yes, I’ve noticed this about Spring Harvest, which I applaud. I can’t comment on New Wine or Greenbelt. The festival I was referring to was another one from a more reformed stable, which consisted mostly of (excellent) didactic teaching in 60-90 minute chunks.

  11. Thank you everyone who has contributed to this discussion. So many excellent points made. These festivals are so valuable. It’s just thinking about how they could be even better. I think the volunteering points show that this is a credibble optio for those who can’t afford to pay for a full ticket if their circumstances allow it.

    Also the concept of regional roadshows is a suitable way of bringing these festivals to a wider audience. I know that some such as Soul Survivor have been doing this for sometime and they have been a blessing to many people.

    There are answers and solutions out there and as has been mentioned, often the best place to find these is within our own church communities.


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